Money for nothing? Some idle speculations about Universal Basic Income
Would you like to be paid for sitting at home all day doing nothing? If so, you could try getting in touch with Autonomy, a British-based think-tank currently seeking £1.6m in funding to give away £1,600 per month over the course of two years to 30 lucky British citizens.
This is billed as the first small-scale trial of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) ever to be tried out in England, an idea whose time has supposedly now come. As advances in automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are predicted to render us primitive humanoids increasingly irrelevant in the workplace over coming decades, UBI is increasingly cast as the possible answer to potential looming mass unemployment.
UBI involves doling out every individual in any given nation a free state-administered handout each and every month or week, no strings attached. Recipients may choose to use it to supplement existing income from part-time work, to pay their way through higher education, to fund themselves performing voluntary work in the local community … or, rather less optimistically, to sit around at home all day eating crisps and watching TV.
Simply put, UBI would simplify and universalise all pre-existing state benefits systems, essentially placing everyone on a kind of lifetime state unemployment allowance – without any need for them to necessarily actually ever bother seeking out a job. Some people like the idea, others are sceptical. British Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith scoffed that the Autonomy think-tank would “be surprised to hear there’s a system already in place regarding income, which is widely referred to as ‘employment’.”
Personally, I rather like the idea of a UBI in principle. I just doubt whether it could actually succeed in practice. Yet it is not the practicality (or otherwise) of funding or administering UBI we shall consider here, but something which may at first seem like a side issue, but really is not: what would most people actually choose to do with all that new, unearned free time a UBI allowance would gift them?
Modern-day advocates of UBI take their place within a long line of thinkers who have had exceedingly unrealistic expectations about just how the liberated proletariat will employ their time, once freed from the bonds of degrading capitalist free-market wage-slavery. Consider, for instance, Karl Marx’s famous words to the effect that less time at work and less specialisation of labour forced upon the individual worker by capitalism would allow people “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, raise cattle in the evening, [and] criticise [literature] after dinner … without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” Put politely, these imaginary, infinitely enlightened Marxian beings are not humans as we currently know them.
Recall too the left-wing English philosopher Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness, which contains passages like the following, about the likely impact of shorter work hours upon the ordinary people whom Russell had occasionally glimpsed whilst looking out through the windows of his large country mansion. A looming four-hour workday, he said:
“… would enable a man to use leisure intelligently … Peasant dances have died out except in remote rural areas, but the impulses which caused them to be cultivated must still exist in human nature … [Because workers are so tired] the pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinema, watching football matches, listening to the radio and so on … In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving … Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality.”
Surely Russell’s own idea is lacking in reality? What he is saying is certainly true for an exceptional minority: miniscule working hours and a UBI doubtless will enable a few genuine working-class geniuses to develop their talents without starving, but I suspect the vast majority of mankind will continue to be satisfied by watching football matches and films (although who precisely will be volunteering to staff and run the actual stadiums and cinemas is more of a moot point).
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There’s nothing wrong with passive entertainment, but are such activities really deserving of massive state subsidy, much of which will inevitably end up being derived from the tax payments of those who do still choose to stick to working long hours?
Elsewhere in his essay, Russell humorously cites the old anecdote about the man who approaches a gang of tramps and promises a gold coin to the laziest. All bar one jump up and try to claim he is the biggest idler, so the man tosses the coin to the one who wouldn’t even bother to lift himself up from the floor to beg for it. If you ever want to argue against the idea of a UBI, do keep this image in mind.
Another classic such essay came from the pen of perhaps the twentieth century’s most influential economist, J.M. Keynes, entitled Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Written in 1930, Keynes imagines what life will be like for his descendants a hundred years later in 2030, optimistically anticipating that, by this time, “the economic problem may be solved” in its entirety, to be replaced by mankind’s “real, permanent problem”, that of how to use his lashings of automation-enabled free time “to live wisely and agreeably and well”.
Keynes admits many people may find it hard to adjust to a life of leisure at first, “especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom”, so recommends his grandchildren gradually wind themselves down towards a state of pure laziness via the initial adoption of a three-hour day and fifteen-hour workweek, to be largely spent in “small duties and tasks and routines”. Then, the transition towards indolence will happen “gradually, not as a catastrophe” before, one fine day, all our grandchildren “shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.”
Was Keynes right? Well, given that on current projections the 2030s are the precise decade when AI and robots really will begin stealing most people’s jobs on a truly grand scale, Keynes’ grandchildren may soon be about to find out.
The utopian idea that liberation from work will automatically liberate creative ideas from within the great mass of currently oppressed workers’ minds is often seen as being a fundamentally Marxist one (I actually sourced Keynes’ above essay from a Marxist website: naturally, access was free). The Italian Marxist philosopher ‘Bifo’, for example, after accurately defining laziness as meaning “I don’t want to go to work because I prefer to sleep”, once declared that such long lie-ins were nothing less than “the source of intelligence, of technology, of progress”, something which may have been disputed by the hardworking and demonstrably wide-awake persons who have actually been responsible for such things when stationed at their drawing-boards or places of work.
However, UBI is not necessarily an inherently left-wing concept. Various libertarian Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, too, acutely aware of the fact their AI-fuelled inventions might one day toss millions out of work, are also fans of the idea. Because both Marx and today’s California tech-giant hyper-capitalists seem to see only the abstract concept of The People, as opposed to actual individual people, living in their imagined future worlds, maybe this alliance between economic Left and economic Right should not surprise us.
But what, in practice, might most liberated workers actually choose to do with their lashings of newly found free time? Would they really spend their days studying literature and creating incredible new masterpieces of art and philosophy, as Keynes, Russell, Bifo and Marx seemed to think?
A 2015 book, The Theory & Practice of Resistance to Work by David Frayne, then a Cardiff University academic, proves (unintentionally) very instructive. Between 2009 and 2013, Frayne spent many hours with persons who were trying to “prevent work from colonising their lives” – at the unspoken expense of the actual working UK taxpayer.
One couple Frayne met, Matthew and Lucy, were happy to exist on unemployment benefits. Lucy had previously been suffering a truly tragic existence working in the soft furnishings department of a bargain shop (“I don’t know if I can ever buy cushions again”), whilst Matthew had endured the altogether more genuinely ridiculous situation of working unpaid for a local magazine in order to keep his benefits payments from the JobCentre – a magazine which, effectively, was thus getting its free staff paid for by the taxpayer. By the time Frayne met them, both had quit.
A former student, Matthew had been inspired by a university away-trip where he had talked to a “genuinely renowned professor of philosophy” about Pot Noodles (a popular British instant-noodles snack) during the morning, spent the afternoon hearing lectures about the NHS, listened to poetry in the evening, and whiled away the night in the pub. Sometimes, he even played boardgames. Apparently, this little jaunt had “completely changed” Matthew, because it gave him “a taste of what life could be like”, which suggests his horizons beforehand must have been somewhat limited.
The academic Frayne, predictably well-versed in Marx, specifically compares this to Karl’s old quote about being a herdsman in the day and a literary critic at night, suggesting that such portfolio experiences might prove an ideal model for future human existence. It was certainly an ideal model of existence for Matthew, who henceforth refused to get a proper job and stayed at home considering the ontology of Pot Noodles full-time with his girlfriend instead. Matthew and Lucy had thereby conquered the Marxian sense of alienation from inhumane capitalist society, thrown off their shared false consciousness, and spent their time heroically indulging their shared love of videogames and reading. [Frayne, 2015, pp.134–7, 142–4, 177]
Rather than curing cancer or rewriting Shakespeare, this, I would suggest, is how a very large proportion of people would really choose to spend their lives if given receipt of a free and guaranteed UBI. Utopians like Marx and Russell seem utterly unencumbered by any meaningful knowledge of human beings.
A retiring personality
One man with rather greater insight into the human soul was J.K. Huysmans, the French writer of the Belle Époque, a key figure of the ‘Decadent’ literary movement of his day. Prior to finding fame, Huysmans spent 32 years toiling away in cocooned and dusty obscurity as a civil servant in the French Ministry of the Interior and Religious Affairs from 1866 to 1898. In 1888, around a decade prior to his own retirement from the job, Huysmans wrote a now largely forgotten short story, The Retirement of Monsieur Bougran, which seemed to suggest the question of how Huysmans would one day manage to fill those long, late-life days away from the office once his own time in public service had ended, was already pressing upon his mind.
The story was only printed in 1964, after having been saved from its intended fate of being burned in the dying author’s fire grate by the actions of a quick-thinking servant-maid, who ripped it up before her master’s eyes before sneakily shoving it beneath a chair to retrieve and reassemble later (or so the story goes, anyway). If the tale is true, what was it about his titular hero – and potential on-page avatar – Huysmans wished to hide?
Monsieur Bougran’s attempts at living off a meagre civil service allowance once forcibly pensioned off at the early age of fifty for no good reason seem rather less idealistically admirable than those imagined for future liberated workers by the likes of Marx and Russell. As Huysmans observes, “much more than the question of personal resources, the question of time to kill worried him.”
Free time, enjoyed in its infinitude, soon becomes a burden, not a pleasure; walks about town or visits to galleries quickly become routine and lose their sheen. Insomnia and lack of appetite ensue, and Bougran begins to look back on his former office life with regret and desire. Dull and boring it may once have seemed, but at least it gave his life some structure: “Seen from a distance, the Ministry [now] appeared to him as a place of delight.”
Eventually, M Bougran conceives the only solution possible: he will create a faithful facsimile of his old job and workplace within the confines of his own front room, and pretend he is still in gainful employment. First of all, he redecorates his room to resemble his old office, even recreating his former work desk down to the last inkwell, folder and pencil. He buys copies of civil service dictionaries of administration and other such technical texts, and sets up his room ready for new tasks of his own devising. He even dresses in his usual suit, leaves his home and walks halfway to his old workplace every morning, before about-turning and returning back home again, just to add more realism to his pretence, like an early Reginald Perrin.
Encountering an old office boy fallen on hard times in the street one day, Bougran even goes so far as to employ him to sit in his hallway, knock on his office door and bring in yet more piles of paperwork every so often, to maintain the charade further. He sends himself letters containing imaginary petitions from members of the French public, then sets about answering them to the best of his ability; in an attempt to make his work more challenging, M Bougran makes sure to set himself the most administratively and legally complex tasks possible.
Working hard until 5 a.m. at his completely self-imposed and pointless tasks, Bougran is nonetheless unable to fully convince himself of the reality of the fake role he is playing, and despair begins to creep back in. Eventually, in a futile attempt to keep his brain active and misery at bay, he sets himself an administrative task so fiendishly complex that, when he finally solves it, he has some kind of stroke and simply keels over and dies at his fake work desk:
“His poor head faltered; nevertheless, he wore himself out on this appeal begun and from which he could no longer disentangle himself. Tenaciously, while he felt freer, he was still picking this fictitious question he had asked himself. He finally resolved it, but he had such a brain lapse that his skull capsized, in a jolt. He let out a cry. Neither Huriot [his fake office-boy] nor the maid disturbed him. Towards evening they found him fallen on the table, his mouth stammering, his eyes blank. They brought a doctor who noticed the apoplexy and declared that the patient was lost. Mr Bougran died in the night, while the boy and the maid insulted each other and tried to move away to search the furniture. On the desk, in the now deserted room, lay the sheet of paper on which Mr Bougran had, in haste, feeling himself dying, scribbled his last lines: ‘For these reasons, I can only express an unfavourable opinion on the action to be taken on the appeal lodged by Mr so-and-so.’”
Is such a tragic scenario actually realistic, or just a bleak literary fantasy? As AI really does seem set to be about to consume vast numbers of previously secure-seeming human jobs, and UBI veers ever further into mainstream political discourse, I fear we may be about to find out.
Steven Tucker is a UK-based writer with over ten books to his name. His latest, Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science, comparing the woke pseudoscience of today to the totalitarian pseudoscience of the past, has been published in summer 2023.
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