12. June 2012

One expert speaker, six young professionals and an audience of foundation representatives from across Europe met recently to discuss the merits of providing every member of society with a guaranteed subsistence wage.

Imagine a country where every person receives a fixed amount of money, every month. This, in a nutshell, describes the concept of an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) – a controversial topic that raises eyebrows and emotions. Critics say the concept derives from a Utopian dream factory, and is doomed to fail. Advocates of the UBI see it as the only sustainable way for society to succeed in the future. “The UBI will remove the poverty trap, the outcome of the policies of the last 20 years”, says keynote speaker Guy Standing in a discussion with five FutureLab Europe participants and an editor of Europe&Me magazine at the Europe@Debate in Belfast on June 7, 2012, at the European Foundation Centre’s 23rd Annual General Assembly and Conference. The UBI, Standing says, has become a central aspect in the debate about redistribution.

 “Poverty is right at our doorsteps,” these are FutureLab’s Estefanía Almenta’s opening words after taking the stage at the Europe@Debate. In her home country, Spain, recent figures show youth unemployment rates rising to more than 50 percent. However, Almenta says, when she asked friends and colleagues about implementing an UBI, most of them had never heard about it: “The debate isn’t wide-spread; and when I asked people, they said that an UBI might be ideally desirable, but people thought that it would never work.”

Johannes Himmelreich, standing next to her, nods. He is an editor at online magazine Europe&Me; in a joint effort with FutureLab Europe, Europe&Me conducted a survey among around 500 participants across Europe. To start off the debate in Belfast, Himmelreich and Almenta present the results of this non-representative survey. Due to recent debates, the topic of an UBI is more prominent in his native country Germany, Himmelreich adds to Almenta’s remark, “however, it is important to keep in mind that many people have a very different impression of what a basic income could look like”.

Harmonization and polarity

This describes one of the major difficulties in discussing an UBI; namely, defining an UBI in the first place. Therefore, FutureLab and Europe&Me worked on their survey with “the most basic definition,” Almenta and Himmelreich explain: “The UBI was defined as a fixed amount that every person receives every month. The exact amount and how it changes with age, location and rising income, remained up for discussion.” There were two major findings of the survey, they conclude: First of all, people worry about how to harmonize a potential UBI across Europe where the basic costs of living differ substantially. Secondly, the introduction of UBI is a polarizing topic that evokes a black-and-white thinking. “The respondents were either clearly in favor, or clearly against it,” Himmelreich concludes.

Ever since the debate around an UBI arose in the 1980s, the topic has been controversial, and has led to emotional debates. One of the UBI’s most prominent advocates is Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath, and co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network. When he enters the stage in Belfast for his keynote speech, his confidence makes clear that for decades, he has been holding emotional pleas for an UBI. “When we started the debate about an UBI in the 1980s, we were dismissed as young, and dangerous,” he says. Then, he says, the introduction of an UBI in various countries, primarily in Brasil, proved to be a success story. Nowadays, the advocates of an UBI “are regarded as a central part of the debate about redistribution,” Standing believes.

“People of my age protest every Saturday and Sunday”

“Freedom is a European value. However, to achieve it in a society we need certain levels of social equality,” responds FutureLab’s Zuzana Novakova to Standing’s speech. Novakova, originally from Slovakia and now living in Barcelona, takes up Almenta’s opening remark about new forms of poverty: “Where I live, 50 percent of people of my age are unemployed, and they protest every Saturday and Sunday; sometimes just because it is the only way left for them to socialize.” This phenomenon, says Guy Standing, is one of the reasons why there has to be a move towards a basic income. He calls this newly emerging class “The Precariat;” Standing also dedicated his most recent book to the phenomenon. “This is an existential crisis which is affecting a majority,” he says; more and more people nowadays feel “status frustration and alienation.”

A total re-thinking of society

How can this phenomenon be handled? Moderator Almut Möller of the German Council on Foreign Relations, keeps on raising this question throughout the debate: “European welfare systems are challenged, there’s no doubt – the question is just, what to do about it? Is an UBI feasible? And is it desirable?” A discussion about the Unconditional Basic Income, Möller says, involves touching upon something, “that requires a total re-thinking of society.”

“We have to dissociate ourselves from a purely performance-oriented approach when introducing the unconditional basic income,” says FutureLab’s Lukas Brück in his opening remarks for the discussion with the audience. He points out the multifacetedness of an UBI; for instance, he quotes two authors of German magazine DER SPIEGEL, predicting the 20/80 society. In that society, 20 percent of the working age population would be enough to keep the world economy going. The other 80 percent would live on an unconditional basic income providing enough money for the basic needs to avoid social unrest or high criminal rates. “Is that the reason for neo-liberal advocates to advocate for an UBI? Using the UBI as an excuse to get rid of any kind of social responsibility?” Brück asks.

Transforming the way we think

It is a heated europe@debate discussion in Belfast. One reason might lay in the controversial nature of the topic. Whether one agrees with the necessity of implementing an UBI or not, remains an open question – however, there is no doubt about the fact that the problems and societal phenomena Guy Standing bases his theory on, are real and present. “This feels big to me,” with these words, moderator Almut Möller closes the session. One statement from Standing’s keynote continues to linger in the memory: “The way we think can actually be transformed relatively quickly. And in times of crises, new perspectives can quickly become an alternative.”