Universal Basic Income at DiEM25: A Citizen University Debate

How would Universal Basic Income (UBI) affect how we define our productive societal worth? Is taking care of people’s basic needs the only thing holding back a society of civic activists, or would providing everybody with an unconditional basic income make them retreat into their private lives? Is UBI a necessary condition for a pan-European democratization movement? In the 3rd discussion of the Citizenship University lectures series two UBI experts were invited to discuss these questions with Dutch DiEM25 members. The Citizenship University is a lecture series organized by DiEM25’s Dutch branch and addresses changing social arrangements of the future, including work and labour, and technology and politics. As an initiative gaining increasing traction in Europe and elsewhere, the role of UBI in the future of labour and work is clear.

Socrates Schouten and Michel Neeleman lead a discussion of the the ethical, economic, and democratizing implications of a future where UBI is a reality. Socrates Schouten, a researcher on sustainability and former member of the scientific wing of the Groenlinks, challenged the romanticized ideals of UBI in remedying transforming our unsustainable capitalist system. Ideally, UBI, in delinking labour from income, would transform how we understand productivity, time, and services. This would lead to sustainable post-capitalist economy based on  trustful reciprocity, rather than economic transaction. In this post-capitalist system, money and markets would become increasingly redundant. UBI’s central goal of providing individuals with the monetary income to pay their basic needs would be irrelevant where societies are based not on economic transaction, but on values solidarity, reciprocity, and trust. Socrates asks the simple question of whether we need UBI to transition to a post-capitalist society.

Socrates Schouten

What we need is a ‘basic income culture’ rather than UBI as an economic reality. Reaching a post-capitalist society, either through basic income or a basic income culture is an optimistic ideal. Informed by Thomas Piketty’s insight that the wealth of capital owners increases at a higher rate than overall economic growth, Schoten outlines a more realistic vision of UBI. If we make basic income a universal right, large corporations would be willing to have governments cover it. All surplus wealth above the minimum required to cover the basic needs of all citizens would then be fair-game for large corporations. UBI is more likely to work in favour of the capitalists, rather than mark the transition to a post-capitalist society.

Michel Neeleman, an active member of DiEM25’s Utrecht branch,  offered an interesting critique of DiEM25’s vision of UBI in Europe’s democratization. According to Varoufakis’ vision of UBI, it would not be funded by income taxes, but by a wealth tax. This would distribute the accumulation of capital owned by the rich towards balancing the massive debts held by the poor. A wealth tax would particularly target where companies become public. Accordingly, UBI would ‘civilize capitalism’, rather than undermine it. Michel problematized the funding of UBI (which, according to most calculations, would involve a €220 billion redistribution of wealth per month) through a wealth tax, as Varoufakis envisions, rather than on an income tax, as most UBI proposals envision.

As a part of the Citizen University lecture series, the floor was opened to debate, and then the diversity of DiEM25 came to the for. For some, current UBI initiatives are not radically democratic enough, They all depend on government of municipality distribution. Grassroots initiatives, such as local cooperatives, or community commons could also realize a UBI or basic dividends model. For others, existing UBI proposals see employment as an evil hindering the good life. An alternative to UBI that sees employment as key to our engagement with society is  a universal job guarantee. One member of the audience asked whether a pan-European UBI may further insulate the ‘European fortress’ from the rest of the world.  Can countries beyond the rich West even afford to experiment with UBI? These questions were hotly debated during the evening.

The discussion on UBI last Thursday, and the Citizen University initiative of which it is a part, reflects the strengths and potentials of DiEM25. Experts and activists were invited, and the diversity of DiEM25 membership in terms of profession, cultural backgrounds, and political views, allowed us to critically engage with the DiEM25’s vision of a democratized Europe.

click here for the video of our seminar


More info:

DiEM25 NL Citizen Uni 17-05-2017 – Universal Basic Income
170518 DiEM25 University UBI
Introduction DiEM25 UBI Seminar
Intro DiEM25 UBI Seminar
Storlund – Basic Income
Storlund BI stabilising driver