Every day more and more people understand the importance of a universal basic income. Every day the idea is discussed, organised, disseminated, presented as part of the political agenda, and how to finance it. And what can we say about its political implementation?

By Juan Manuel Iribarren

If we wanted to designate the main obstacle to Universal Basic Income, we should not think of the well-off sectors protesting against high taxes, fuelled by libertarian militancy; nor should we consider part of trade unionism in the front line of resistance, with its anachronistic dignity of labour and its non-classist sectoral interests, much less the rich who vainly resist the progressive tax reform that our countries require. No, the main obstacle to basic income is realpolitik, the pragmatism to which progressive parties with sufficient electoral strength and open-mindedness to come to power and implement it have been forced. And what is realpolitik today?

The consideration that sensible policies must be implemented progressively, modestly and adjusted to the electoral calculus and the enemy’s strength, seeking a point of equilibrium for governability. And on the other side, what would there be?

The Great War, unbridled armament, unbridled ideological madness, and no middle ground? A middle ground can lead us to constant confrontation, because faced with a government without ideological rampage or diplomatic capitulation, in a context where arguments hardly define political activity, the opposition does nothing but get disoriented, project ghosts and promote a common sense lacking all rationality. A middle ground, far from being a space of moderation for dialogue and rational consideration, ultimately becomes a space of feigned tolerance for overplayed tensions that are not resolved.

Let us reformulate with another perspective: can Basic Income be implemented progressively? Say basic income for 5 million people in a country of 40 million. Well, 5 million people receive a basic income, it substantially improves their lives and the government understands it as a demand policy to encourage consumption and small industry, warns that it is something progressive and disseminates it; but for every movement of redistribution of wealth, tectonic forces move that operate to generate regressive redistribution in the next game. Let’s say that the poor brought into the middle class may not be the same people who will be brought into poverty by reactionary forces, but the numbers remain the same. Piketty observed that the stable redistribution of wealth was only produced by the shocks generated by the great world wars, which implies two relevant facts. The first is that there was no stable redistribution of wealth without partial destruction of private wealth. The second is that this did not occur in strictly economic or political terms.

We could incur in a statistical fallacy since Piketty does not base his study on all the countries of the world, but on a significant sample of developed countries. And so it is not the creation of wealth that generated stable redistribution, but the destruction of the wealth of the powerful? What does this tell us about a creation of wealth linked to inequality, even though the quality of life is rising compared to other centuries? Piketty has been quoted on a number of issues, but has avoided probing the hidden observation in his book about the dramatic nature of the stable redistribution of wealth.

And although Piketty makes no reference to the political reasons for such inertia, his study does not provoke optimism about redistribution in political terms; as if a state of exception, a catastrophe or a world war were needed for “inequality compression” to occur, either by loss of wealth or by significant wealth taxes. For although he never misses an opportunity to affirm the importance of politics and institutions, his study suggests that these only become effective in a state of social emergency. What finally emerges is that between stable redistribution and political activity there could be a short-circuit. We might add: short-circuit in which those ideologies of freedom operate, in the name of the long term of self-regulating market efficiency. Or in the short term of large economic groups, market coups and self-fulfilling prophecies?

Where am I going? That one problem of progressive implementation is that there are forces that do not allow progressivity, that manoeuvre in time to change course, even if we cannot even understand or notice it. Piketty does not analyse the dynamic between progressivism and the reaction we are used to, but he points to an unequivocal direction towards greater inequality if capital income is not affected.

And if the accumulation of income and the increase in inequality was unchanged until the catastrophe, then we can think that neoliberal reforms continue to increase inequality, not so much because of the lack of progressive policies in our countries, but because of the lack of income destruction. And so the reversal of deficits or market shocks, the incentive to economic growth with supply-side policies after years of demand-side policies, the relationship between Labour’s post-war Welfare State and Blair’s post-Thatcherite smile worried by focus groups, or between the different social justice projects and the visceral reaction of the privileged, cannot be stopped in a large part of the West.

It would not be valid to infer that the stable redistribution of wealth is conditional on the eventuality of a catastrophe that drastically reduces the income of the top deciles and percentiles, but this is the relevant finding of the most comprehensive report that has been done on the distribution of capital: so far it seems to have been the case.

Trying to begin to think about and update the ins and outs of such inertia would entail a very long report on the web of foundations and think-tanks of large corporations that have been pulling the strings of the militancy operative for reaction for a long time. What moves fast is not ideas, but money and exposure spaces. Already David Harvey warned of what had happened in the 1970s in the US Chamber of Commerce, with a letter calling for the restructuring of the ruling class consciousness in order to empower and spread business-friendly ideas, which led to the seizure of ever more space for neoliberal ideas. The template of covert political activity at the level of ideas involved the assault on the most important institutions, through think-tanks in prestigious academic and social institutions, which defined an individualistic and liberal common sense outside the influence of any government. Many progressive governments in the 21st century underestimated the sustained creation of liberal subjectivity, believed that good indicators were more important, and failed at the ballot box.

Today it would be naïve to believe that ideas or empirical evidence can win a game, the truth is that they can win a game, but capital reactivates its privileges and re-establishes the balance with its enormous capacity to impose the repetition of slogans that have failed and are operative for reaction. As proof of this we have the ascendancy of libertarian thought, which evokes thinkers of a century ago with tried and failed ideas, and which is postulated as a model of political modernity in the youth with considerable success, while great economists of our time are ignored by the mass-media and social networks. The time when ideas won battles seems to be dying. Whoever has the greatest capacity to disqualify the opponent is the quickest to win in this century of a muddy field.

And in this context realpolitik does what it can, but the more it yields away from its ideals, the more the force and blackmail of capital grows. And while the precariat presents itself as the historical class born out of the ruins of neoliberal reforms, while the automation of labour threatens to throw the working class, whose potential for emancipation has already been relegated to the dustbin of history since the 1980s, an idea emerges with force in a world of frenetic activities without ideas: Universal Basic Income, a condition to start talking about freedom, without hypocrisy or trauma.

What to do in this century?

What does realpolitik do? The first thing it does immediately is to make it progressive, to place it within the macroeconomy with the aim of strengthening a sector with little capacity for demand. Once channelled as a policy of demand, it ends up in the junk of subsidies, of the stigmatisation of the poor as useless, whom the state should help, calling it universal basic income and turning it into the target of reactionary sectors. What was lost along the way?

In the first place, its very name, its capacity to denounce, because when we talk about income we are saying that income is part of the economy and that there are sectors that do not have income, that these sectors lack economic citizenship, because economic citizenship can only be guaranteed with income. The time in which work could guarantee it ended with the neoliberal reforms. To talk about Basic Income is to put “work” in brackets, that is to tell everyone that we live in a world where work does not guarantee survival. The sufficient condition is extra-labour resources: income, education and training, private property, privileged information, family or state support.

Secondly, its capacity for emancipation, because we also demand unconditionality, since it is the ultimate basis for the income from capital and land. If it were made conditional, even if it did not demand a consideration, we could not call it rent; for rent is money received in exchange for no effort. And the emancipatory potential of it consists not only in the sensation of freedom or individual relaxation, but also in the process of pacification of society and social tensions, in the creation of an unconditioned culture that allows the projection of future ideals, by a process similar to the social relaxation in the first welfare states; at that time by the socialisation of access to mass consumption and social benefits, in our days by the socialisation of the sensation of freedom postulated by indifferent systems that put millions of people in a state of extreme need. The emancipation of humanity will come with the socialisation of “not being forced to work and being able to decide what to do with one’s life”, not with the propaganda of theoretical individual freedom.

Let us be clear that these are times when the privileged classes postulate a magical voluntarism and pose this condition as a question of personal daring, accusing those who cannot reach Aladdin’s lamp of demerit, lack of effort and negativity. Let’s be clear that these are also times when this half-baked impressionism is responded to rationally: The necessary condition for “being what you want to be” is not having to worry about economic survival.

And thirdly, then, its ability to bring about a stable redistribution of wealth without the need for catastrophe. For historical and political reasons based on the historical processes of progressive movements, the possibility of implementing a progressive policy runs the risk of mobilising reaction before reaching the target, so progressive implementation does not guarantee progressive redistribution. Progressive policies, at least as far as the Ibero-American scene is concerned, unwittingly open the game to foundations and think-tanks ready to muddy the waters with vociferous puppets.

Would it not be legitimate to think that, if the RBU could be fully implemented in any country, the social and economic consequences would be so powerful that a new ideological hegemony and new subjectivities impervious to the influence of those minority sectors with the power of distraction and fire could be generated? Would it not be legitimate to think that when many entrepreneurs experience the new level of consumers, it would be difficult for them to back out, because not only would aggregate demand be boosted, but also social peace and stability to project themselves into the future in predictable markets?

It is precisely the sectors historically most reactionary to the redistribution of wealth that could surprise with a direct relationship between speed of implementation and positive belief, because with a slow implementation these sectors would resist tenaciously, since with partial rents we are sure that they would not see any favourable results.

That is why the main enemy of the RBU is realpolitik and must be avoided. Another midwife must be found.


Thomas Piketty. Capital in the 21st Century. Chapter VIII. The Two Worlds

David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Chapter II. The construction of consent

Juan Manuel Iribarren is studying Economics at the University of Buenos Aires and is a member of the Red Humanista por la Renta Básica Universal (Humanist Network for Universal Basic Income).