Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Paul Mason and the realities of work and Basic Income

Yesterday the normally excellent Paul Mason wrote a piece in the Guardian (G2, p5) on Basic (Citizens) Income (BI).

Paul is a great guy, but reading his piece gives me a flashback to the debates we had about BI in Green Party conferences back in the 80s. He is not against BI, if anything he is for it, but for it in the way that long haired green anarchists were for it way back then.

In his first paragraph, Paul says "[the Citizens Income Trust (CIT)] pointed out that, in the form proposed by the Greens, a third of families might lose out."

On the linked page we read "The Green Party has not yet published details of its Citizen's Income scheme. Our research shows that if a Citizen's Income of £72 per week for working age adults (more for older people, less for younger people and children) were to be implemented then it would be perfectly possible to do so without imposing losses on low-income households."

Deeper in on the CIT site (go here, and down to The Citizen's Income Trust's 2013 illustrative scheme) we find that one fifth of the lowest quintile (=fifth) of the population get a loss of 10% of income. That is, one 25th of the population loses out, not one third. 4% instead of 33%. Quite a difference.

The people who lose out in the transition between the present benefit system and BI are those on Working Tax Credit. The CIT goes on to look at workarounds for these losses which I will not go into now, because I want to look at Paul's core case.

He is taking about the Disappearance of Work. This takes me back to the hippies of old: "Who wants to work in a widget factory? The world can do without widgets". (In the event, many of those hippies weont on to work quite hard building tipis, dutting wood, drawing water, growing food, building compost toilets and raising children. Working, in other words.) 

Paul quotes David Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist, and Andrew Gorz, a social philosopher. David speaks of "bullshit jobs" - menial, low paid, with no rationale. Andrew talks of a "Zero-work society". And Paul then produces what he cheerfully admits is a bit of fag-packet conjecture of his own.

Now I love Paul. He is a good man, and arguably one of the very best economic journalists writing in the UK, but this really shows is how far economic journalism has departed from reality.

"Zero-work society??" We need to look again at work and economics.

Work is the process of setting things in order so that we can sustain our life within the fragile, gossamer-thin web of life on this watery planet.

The fundamentals of work are to produce clean water, good food (without destroying the soil and climate that produce the food), shelter, energy (without destroying the energy balance of the planet itself), and we need to minimise the wastes arising from this system, and make sure that they are not toxic to the biosphere.

That is the foundation of the economy. All of these processes need work.

Next, we need to manufacture tools to do these works, and transport to shift the products around.

Next, we need markets, as free as can be but limited so that they do no damage to society or environment, and guided to protect same.

Next, we need administration to coordinate it all, and make sure that justice is served.

Last of all, we need a monetary system that oils the wheels of all the foregoing processes, facilitates and serves them.

There, in essence, is what economics is about. It is all about work, if work is correctly understood as setting things in order so that they sustain both human life and a healthy diverse biosphere.There is one hell of a lot of work out there that needs to be done, not just to keep us going, but also to help us to heal the damage we have been doing.

There is also such a thing as unwork, work that produces disorder. The military and fossil fuel industries come under that bracket.

To talk about a "zero-work economy" is fatuous, I'm sorry Paul, but it is. Maybe the academics who do this work have re-defined work in their heads - who knows, and who, indeed cares? The key virtue of Basic Income is that it helps people to take up work without discovering that they get less money in work than they do in benefits. Let us discuss Basic Income by all means, but let us discuss it within a framework of reality.

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