Preface to the South Korean edition of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom

09.10.2016 - Madrid (España) - Redacción Madrid

This post is also available in: Spanish, Greek

Preface to the South Korean edition of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom

Daniel Raventós

This book, now translated into Korean was first published in English (Pluto Press) and Spanish (El Viejo Topo) in 2007, just before the onset of the present grave economic crisis. A Czech edition was published in 2014 (Rubato). Nine years after it first appeared, apart from a few possible minor updates, the book is still totally relevant. This is the case not only because several of its themes are quite timeless—for example chapters devoted to the political-philosophical justifications of basic income, or analysing the means-tested benefits schemes adopted by many states, or responding to the usual criticisms of basic income—but also because the situation today, after almost ten years of crisis and economic policies supposedly applied to combat it, is truly catastrophic for a good part of the European (but not only European) population. This deterioration of living and working conditions of people who are not strictly rich means that basic income has become a proposal that is even more necessary than it might have been in a more buoyant economic situation. In other words, after almost a decade of crisis, basic income is more relevant than ever.

The book is being published in Korean at a time when basic income has never had so much media attention. So far this year, 2016, publications such as The Guardian, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The New York Times, El País, Der Spiegel and many more all around the world have published countless articles about basic income. Some are well-informed and others ill-informed or downright misleading. All in all, they have no doubt contributed towards better knowledge of basic income in many places. However, they also draw attention to the fact that there are some very right-wing, some middle-of-the-road and some left-wing versions of basic income. The fact of being in favour of basic income is no indication of whether a person’s political position is right-wing or left-wing. This is far too simplistic. Some people even have fun playing with the idea that basic income is neither right-wing nor left-wing, which is ludicrous, to say the least. In order to know the political orientation of any basic income supporter one only needs to find out how this person proposes to finance it. Right-wing advocates want to dismantle the welfare state (or what is left of it) in “exchange” for a basic income. Left-wing proponents favour a redistribution of wealth, from the richest members of the population to the rest, together with preservation and reinforcement of the welfare state. I am in this second group.

Why is basic income, an unconditional cash grant to the whole population, attracting so much attention right now? There are several reasons, including the referendum held in Switzerland on 5 June, the support for basic income expressed by Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek finance minister and declared enemy of the European Union’s “austericide” policies, and the inclusion of basic income in the electoral programmes of some political parties. Indeed, there are many explanations but, in my opinion, there is one that stands out above the rest: the present situation of the non-rich part of the population as a result of economic policies imposed since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, in the European Union in particular.

Why is basic income more necessary in today’s circumstances, which are notable for the serious deterioration of living conditions of the non-rich social majority? To sum up:

1) Involuntary loss of jobs creates a situation of tremendous economic insecurity and precarious living conditions. Losing one’s job but having a basic income would make it possible to deal with this situation with less anxiety. In a situation of crisis where unemployment is much more widespread and prolonged, access to a basic income would be much more significant in terms of social life in general and, even more so, when welfare benefits are dwindling or non-existent over wide areas and foreseeably in the long term.

2) Basic income could play a very important role in reorganising the collective interest of the working class and strengthening resistance, both for workers with organised representation and those without. Basic income is not substitute for wages and neither does it weaken any defence of working class interests. Rather, it is an instrument which strengthens the workforce as a whole, in the workplace and in seeking employment. Moreover, in case of strikes, basic income would mean an unconditional resistance fund with obvious effects in strengthening the bargaining power of workers. The availability of a basic income would make it possible to confront labour disputes from a much more secure position. Today, depending on how long the strike lasts, wages can be cut to almost intolerable levels if, as happens with the great majority of workers, they don’t have alternative means of support.

3) Basic income would also represent considerable risk reduction for people who have undertaken projects of self-employment. In a situation of economic crisis, basic income, besides supporting the tasks of self-employment, including cooperative organisation of beneficiaries, would also represent a better guarantee (even if only partially) of people being better able to cope with the failure of small businesses.

4) One of the most outstanding results of basic income would be major poverty reduction. Furthermore, since the basic income I and many others envisage must be above the poverty line, it would not be unrealistic to expect its total eradication. Not only would this measure automatically lift millions of people out of poverty but it would constitute a protection against any relapse into poverty. In the ten years since the crisis began, poverty has been relentlessly spreading and worsening.

5) One much-discussed aspect of the crisis is the need to maintain levels of consumption. In fact, in the boom years, many people enjoyed a consumption capacity above their means thanks to asset price inflation and credits, especially mortgages but also consumer loans. Needless to say, debt-fuelled consumption does not usually work in favour of poorer groups. Moreover, with the structural adjustment programmes, not only did this extra income soon dry up but reduced wages had to be used, at least in part, to pay off accumulated debts. Basic income would act as a stabiliser for the essential consumption required to maintain demand in times of crisis, especially among the most vulnerable groups. The economic principle is obvious: if money is given to people who need it, then it is very likely that they will spend it, which is exactly what is needed.

Nevertheless, in this situation brought about by the economic crisis and the policies implemented in response to it, the selfsame reasons indicating a greater need for basic income are at odds with the priority of the main parties in parliament which, clinging to power in a neoliberal (the usual way of referring to capitalism which has run totally amok) world attempt to maintain the unequal status quo and merely to tweak their economic policies by reducing public deficit with large-scale cuts in social spending and public services. This is, no doubt, the main reason why basic income is increasingly attractive for many people, mainly coming from social movements which are trying to resist and struggle against these economic policies of “austericide”. This factor will probably be even more important in the near future.

More and more people are beginning to realise that basic income would effectively mean guaranteeing the material existence of the whole population. This direct aim is, I believe, the most important of all. To this I would add another highly significant effect. As is abundantly clear, one of the basic characteristics of present-day economic functioning is the tremendous power of capital for disciplining the working population. The main reason for this disciplinary capacity is the existence of a large pool of unemployed workers. When the possibility of being dismissed becomes ever greater in times of crisis, workers are increasingly pushed into accepting ever-worse working conditions. In times of almost full employment (when it has existed) this disciplinary power of bosses was undermined. This was stated very clearly and from the other side of the barricades by none other than Sir Alan Budd, economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Caught off guard in a candid moment he declared that the anti-inflationary policies of the 1980s were “a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes”. One must at least be grateful for his sincerity. Basic income would be a powerful tool for combating this disciplinary power of capital. Yet, I believe, although it may seem paradoxical, that trade unions in general—with the occasional honourable exception—have not understood this enormous power of basic income when it comes to resisting the harsh conditions which capital can and does impose in a situation of widespread unemployment.

This book attempts to answer some more or less traditional questions which are asked in relation with basic income and others which are not so “traditional”.

– Is basic income just? Several theories of justice validating basic income are discussed in this book, although the main emphasis is given to the historical conception of republican freedom for which great social and economic inequality is a clear threat to freedom.

– Would not benefits paid to the poor be a better way of combating poverty? Here, the book demonstrates something which is apparently counterintuitive, namely that, precisely because of its unconditional nature, basic income is a much better anti-poverty measure than conditional grants.

– Can basic income be financed? The book shows that it is perfectly possible to do so by means of progressive tax reform. Who wins and who loses with this method of financing basic income? The rich would lose and about 80% of the population, starting with the poorest group, would gain. This, then, is an effective rebuttal of the criticism which claims that basic income is unjust because it is also given to the rich, who do not need it.

– Would people work if they were paid a basic income? One chapter in the book is devoted to describing three kinds of work (remunerated, domestic and voluntary) and how they would be affected by basic income.

These are some of the issues dealt with in Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom. When I was invited to South Korea in June 2016 by the Institute for Political and Economic Alternatives and the Basic Income Korean Network, the section of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) which has organised the 16th BIEN Congress to be held in Seoul in July this year, these questions and many more which are dealt with in the book were asked by members of audiences at the events in which I had the honour of participating. They are, as one might reasonably expect, similar to the questions, doubts and objections which are raised in other parts of the world where basic income is being discussed. One of the highlights of my trip to South Korea was a meeting requested by Lee Jae-myung, mayor of the city of Seongnam and Korean translator of this book. This was most agreeable and instructive and Lee Jae-myung’s account of what he thought were the possibilities for basic income in South Korea convinced me of his deep knowledge of the proposal. My visit to Seoul was certainly very useful for me and also, I hope, for making basic income better known in South Korea.

It is my heartfelt wish that this book, now available in Korean, will contribute towards greater knowledge of basic income among Korean speakers. I am grateful to Chaekdam for publishing it and would be delighted if South Korea were soon among the countries where basic income enjoys widespread support. I say I would be delighted because, to paraphrase the great Thomas Paine, we fight for basic income not as a matter of charity but of justice.


Categories: Asia, Economics, International
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