The basic problem under capitalism revolves around the clash of interests between the working class majority and the small minority who own the capital – the capitalist class. Whenever this clash comes out in the open, it is never a pretty affair. As a result, throughout history, different reformers have worked out different schemes to solve the problems without all the turmoil, bloodshed and conflict. One of the latest is the “Citizen’s Income” campaign. (We suppose, from the title, that non-citizens can be allowed to starve.) Julian Silverman reports from London, UK, on a meeting of these people.
I learn that a ‘citizens’ wage’ should really be called a ‘citizens’ income’ or ‘basic wage’.
It is the idea that there would be a basic income – a ‘floor’ below which no one could fall, working or non-working.
I was interested in the idea because of the obvious dire need for such a thing and because it removes ever so slightly the corrupting one-to-one relationship between money and ‘work’ [and refuses to beg the question of what counts as ‘work’] – i.e. because it is a little glimpse of socialism [Socialism = “to each according to his/her need: from each according to his/her ability”] and yet could be possible here and now under capitalism. [It would cost no more than the present contorted and hard-to-administer regime of taxes and benefits].
It was a high-powered conference at the British Library. The people there did not look like the lefty crowd I usually associate with. They were smartly/casually dressed and spoke like the suave and solvent government underlings, self-financing charity workers that many of them were rather than the nerdy students, the unemployed, grey-haired ex-radicals, single Mums, beardy or beery trade unionists that I expected.
John McDonnell was there and spoke very well. He said that the time was right for this idea because everything else had failed. That every time Miliband said something radical his opinion poll ratings went up, but that he only spoke radical when it was absolutely safe to do so. Our job was to make it safe….I can’t remember now, but I think it was he who quoted Tony Benn who said every time a new idea comes first they say it’s bad, then they say it’s mad and finally they all claim they thought of it first. [I’m finding something like that too] Anyway Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party also spoke well, and there were others who had written books on the economics of it and there was one academic professional who spoke of the moral philosophy behind it: you know “What is the moral life? Is goodness the greatest happiness for the greatest number?” and that sort of thing. This kind of blah-blah turns me right off, but if it will help people survive the cuts then I’m all for it. Among other people present was the great Harry Shutt, author of the best book which foreold the economic collapse we are facing a full fifteen years ago. He didn’t speak. He was just in the audience.
What was bad, as far as i was concerned, was the remark that one of these clever people made that this was the age of globalism and that you could talk to business about this idea. The ideologues would not listen of course, but the reasonable ones would see that they could increase their market if people could buy their goods etc.
In the break I found myself talking to a group including an economics expert who had lectured and written books about Keynesian economics [roughly, the theory referred to above], a journalist and a man who had acted as finance adviser to the government of Tanzania. The kind of people who know all the answers without having to wait for the question.
This utopian fantasy notion is a favourite among trade unionists and the muddled left. I too would like to believe it. It would be so simple. Tell all these big industrialists how they’ve all got it wrong. They don’t need austerity, they don’t need to cut pay, cut costs, sack people, put out zero hour contracts, seize public assets, stage wars for cheap labour, expanding markets, raw materials, ruin and rob the planet etc. etc. Unfortunately things don’t work like that. Big business knows how to do business for its own advantage without our advice. It can sell its increasingly shabby stuff by putting us all into permanent debt-slavery and can do a better deal taking over Barnet council and the like, and extracting their profit from our taxes….
Do people need a basic wage for living? To live, don’t they need shelter, warmth, energy, education, social care etc.? If you make this a matter of money then it will be the money people who win. I suddenly had a horrific image. They might allow a ciizen’s income and then do nothing about housing, carry on privatising the NHS (National Health Service) etc. and say: “Well, you can’t complain. We’ve given you the money. You can pay for it yourself.” Money, after all, is nothing but an I O U which the government will accept… so this would end up helping the banks all the more…..a nightmare.
Perhaps this is not an idea whose time has come, but an idea whose time has already been and gone: a cranky notion.