DEMOCRATISING SURPLUS OP-ED
A universal basic income campaign is part of a broader, long-term project of change
The demand for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) pushes against prevailing economic and social orders. It challenges the idea that our dignity and fates are tied to the sale of our labour on whatever terms and price. It implies fresh ways of thinking about the roles and duties of the state, and about the claims that citizens can rightfully make on their state and on the commons.
For a very large proportion of South Africans, paid work is neither a viable nor sufficient basis for a dignified life. Official unemployment, according to the so-called expanded rate, is over 46%, and close to one-third of people with paid work are not earning enough to afford basic living expenses. This is in a country battling three deadly pandemics — Aids, tuberculosis and Covid-19 — and already battered by climate change-triggered floods and droughts.
Current economic and social policy models are failing to protect millions against hunger, destitution and desperation. Hence, the growing demand for a universal basic income.
A growing alliance of grassroots and nongovernmental organisations, trade unions and research bodies are demanding that the state transform the emergency relief grants introduced earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic into a full-fledged universal basic income (UBI). They have produced careful costing estimates and outlined financing options to back that push.
The ANC, too, might be considering a limited basic income guarantee.
Poverty reduction and security
Powerful evidence supports the expectation that a UBI, even if set at a low amount, will reduce poverty and offer some financial security to people earning low or no incomes.
I discuss this in my new book, In the Balance: The Case for a Universal Basic Income in South Africa and Beyond.
There is no evidence that it would lead to increased spending on “temptation” goods (alcohol, cigarettes, narcotics) or that it would merely subsidise idleness.
More income for poor households should increase demand for basic goods and services, which can boost local production and jobs. If linked to other forward-looking strategies, a UBI can be part of a safety net for communities hard hit by climate change disasters. And it can become part of the support workers and communities will need as we transition to a low-carbon economic model.
A UBI holds other, transformative promises as well. It can enable us to choose paid work more freely, rather than being forced to accept unsafe, badly paid jobs (under the threat of hunger and homelessness). It’s been likened to a kind of “permanent strike fund”, a reserve that can help us hold off on taking a job out of sheer desperation. This could benefit workplace organising and other efforts to improve wages and labour practices, especially at the low-income end of the labour market.
Need shifts the battle lines
As desperation and instability increase, it’s becoming clear across the board that new forms of social support are needed. Even a former Goldman Sachs chief has spoken in support of a basic income in South Africa. Instead of dogmatic opposition, the battle lines are shifting toward defining the purpose, design and scale of a basic income.
So, we have to be clear about what we mean when we demand a UBI. Equally important is how we frame and promote it.
A truly universal basic income will attract strong resistance from the business sector and sections of the state, notably the National Treasury. Achieving and defending it will require social and political forces that are strong enough to prevail against that opposition. And that will require reshaping the “common sense” we use when we define and weigh the claims we have on one another, the state and the commonwealth of our society.
Framing the UBI demand
In a society such as South Africa, the UBI demand evidently speaks to a near-desperate need. But how do we frame the demand? Is it an appeal for “charity”, for the state to “grant” assistance in extreme circumstances? Is it a demand rooted in the state’s duty to “guarantee all members of society the means of existence”, in French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre’s words? Is it a claim arising from rights inscribed in a Constitution? Or is it a claim for what we are due, for a share of common wealth?
A UBI is laden with challenging propositions about the responsibilities and entitlements that connect us in society. The demand upsets deeply held beliefs about the role and status of waged work in society, and about the hierarchies of worth and value we attach to different kinds of work (paid or not).
The demand, therefore, pushes against prevailing economic and social orders. It challenges the idea that our dignity and fates are tied to the sale of our labour on whatever terms and price. It implies fresh ways of thinking about the roles and duties of the state, and about the claims that citizens can rightfully make on their state and on the commons.
A radical perspective would frame a UBI as a dividend of the collectively produced wealth in society. This implies that the entirety of society is entitled to a rightful share of the total social product. A UBI then becomes an income that is paid to people as members of a society that collectively produces wealth.
For the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, the framing steers the debate beyond arguments about who “deserves” assistance: society stakes a claim on the wealth drawn from it and “that claim becomes a dividend, an income stream that goes to everyone”.
Seen in such terms, a UBI recognises implicitly that wealth is socially produced (by people’s labour, paid or not, and social institutions) and it is reliant on the commons (most obviously, non-human nature) and publicly funded infrastructure. The wealth is then privately appropriated.
This understanding emphasises the collective character of a UBI, rather than seeing it merely as a multitude of separate payments to individuals. It is also in tune with powerful political traditions in South Africa.
Framing a UBI as a “social dividend” seems especially appealing in a country where the economy has been built on systemic expropriation and exploitation spanning the colonial and apartheid eras, and continuing subsequently. Similarly, it can be seen in part as a form of “just dues” or remuneration for the unpaid work routinely performed by women.
This profoundly changes the implications of the UBI demand and it implies a different relationship between the citizenry and the state. It becomes a demand to democratise the surplus — and that poses a political challenge to the small minority that commandeers the wealth produced in a society. It involves a sustained act of demand-making, rather than concession-seeking. This kind of UBI can become a wedge that helps disrupt the hierarchy of claims among capital, the citizenry and the state.
The framing of the UBI demand will be at least as important as the achievement itself.
Risk of backfiring or capture
It’s crucial that progressives approach a UBI not as a stand-alone policy fix, but as part of a broader, long-term project of change and emancipation — because there are risks attached. Once in place, a UBI might become politically too costly to abandon, yet fiscally too expensive to sustain. In the absence of powerful progressive support, this could provide a pretext for cutting other social entitlements.
Separated from a strong political and social movement of change, a UBI runs the risk of backfiring, of being captured and repurposed in ways that sustain exploitation, desperation, and inequality.
Even when achieved, a UBI will remain a contested and politically unstable intervention. Ultimately, the impact and fate of a UBI will depend on how it links with other processes of economic, social and political change, which forces drive them, and whether those forces are capable of defending the desired changes. DM/MC
Hein Marais is the author of In the Balance: The Case for a Universal Basic Income in South Africa and Beyond, published by Witwatersrand University Press. The book is available in bookstores, online and as an open-access download.