The alternative facts of the basic income movement

A couple of days ago, I received the most recent newsletter of BIEN (Basic Income Earth Network). As always, this is very interesting literature, though one must read it with one major fact in mind: the network does not necessarily communicate about basic income … it talks about ‘basic income’ (for all, rich and poor) but almost all the items concern guaranteed minimum incomes (for those who need it).

There is a very obvious reason for this: nowhere in the world has a basic income been introduced. Of course, there are the always repeated examples of one poor village in Namibia, there are the ‘pilots’ in India, but these concern poor people and the money they get is hardly sufficient to survive.

Another example is the experiment in Dauphin, Canada: the video one always gets to see clearly shows that incomes were monitored and that only people with insufficient incomes got the money.

All current experiments in Holland or Finland are meant for people with insufficient income and, one way or another, threaten social protection mechanisms.

Or Alaska: yes, the ‘dividend’ distributed to all as a result of the oil industry could be seen as a kind of basic income. The positive side of this is that it is totally delinked from any reflection on social protection or labour markets. It is the result of windfall profits for the region, and part of these profits are distributed to the population. Why not? Of course, other questions can be raised: can such an experiment be limited to the countries or regions with natural resources? Should not all regions with natural resources join this initiative and should not a global fund be made for global needs? These are not easy questions, but are in fact the only serious ones concerning a real basic income.

A very interesting intellectual debate took place in France, because the socialist candidate for the presidential election in May is an advocate of basic income. One has to thank the French for the very useful insights, in favour and against the basic income, that were published. But here as well, the semantic confusion was not absent. All talked of basic income, but some meant a minimum income. Benoît Hamon himself had to admit his proposal was not affordable, so he adapted it in order to give only young people a ‘basic income’ of 750 euros a month.

It means we have a serious problem, and BIEN has a serious problem. It cannot go on communicating on alternative facts. If we want to discuss the advantages and inconveniences of basic income and of social protection, we need to clarify precisely what we mean. One cannot say ’basic income’ if what is meant is a guaranteed minimum income.

We urgently need to explain to people what is possible and what is not possible. We have to clarify what the choices are about. But when the meanings are willingly or unwillingly confused, this is not possible.

This is all the more important since many advocates of basic income claim they are neither leftwing nor rightwing. But a basic income meant to emancipate people is very different from a basic income meant to abolish social protection.

Seducing people with ‘free money for all’ if what is meant is a minimum income for those who need it, is close to fraud.

It is obvious that a story about ‘free money’ can be very attractive to many people, but if the real purpose of the proposal is a privatisation of health services, to give just one example, then there is indeed a real problem.

I therefore have two important and urgent demands.

One, for the BIEN network and other advocates of basic income: please take care of your terminology. You perfectly know the difference, so please do not promote a ‘basic income’ with examples of a ‘minimum income’. This is very confusing and does not allow for a serious debate.

Second, for all those who care about the future of social policies: please let us sit together and see what we can do to have the best possible solution. There are many bridges to build between basic income and social protection, and these have to be examined and be promoted. Is this not the major and most interesting challenge we are faced with?

In these times of rightwing-populism, there is much we urgently have to defend. Democracy and solidarity are among our most threatened achievements. We should not let our social services and our structural solidarity, urgently in need of ´modernisation’, take away by those who do not believe in society.

Francine Mestrum

Global Social Justice, Brussels

Most recent e-book: The Social Commons. Rethinking social justice in post-neoliberal societies,