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Review of Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, Guy Standing (Pelican, London 2017)

Review of Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, Guy Standing (Pelican, London 2017) In 2011, before the rise of recent populist politicians, the former International Labour Organization economist Guy Standing wrote a book in which he warned of the rise of a growing class “prone to listen to ugly voices.” Those strident voices could well erect an influential political platform. Standing argued that the neo-liberal project had contrived an “incipient political monster” and that urgent action was needed before that creature came to life.Standing, Guy (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London, Bloomsbury, p. 1.A co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, Standing called that book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. His 2017 book on basic income offers an incisive, well-informed – and sometimes impassioned – probe of an idea with an old political pedigree that has been attracting increasing interest since his look at the precariat. For Standing, basic income is at once a policy and an urgent social movement, an essential part of the action required to stem the tides of right wing populism.This volume owes an intellectual debt to Tom Paine’s Agrarian Justice and the idea of a social dividend that is “not charity but a right.” Using this principle, Standing cuts his way through the brittle thickets of social policy that so often entangle discussions of basic income. Along the way, he puts forward a wide-ranging definition of basic income as much more than an anti-poverty measure.Standing defines basic income as “ … a social dividend paid from the collective wealth of society created and maintained by our ancestors and as a shared return on the commons and natural resources that belong to all” (page 27). He goes on to describe this rationale for understanding basic income as a social justice imperative rather than as a response to poverty.Such an approach situates basic income within the left libertarian tradition. Other leading basic income supporters share this perspective, notably Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, whose 2017 book’s opening chapter is devoted to basic income as “an instrument of freedom.”Van Parijs, P. and Vanderborght, Y. (2017). Y. Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, pp. 4–28. Standing provides a comprehensive outline of the freedom-enhancing character of what he calls “republican freedom.” Freedom to refuse a bad job or leave an abusive relationship. Freedom to undertake care work and creative work.Standing contrasts this libertarian position to neo-liberal notions of freedom and basic income, providing a useful counterpoint to left critics whose rejection of basic income automatically equates it with neoliberalism. “Support for or opposition to a policy should not be based on whether someone one does not like supports or opposes it,” notes Standing (page 114).Yet Standing sometimes succumbs to the hegemony of neo-liberal libertarianism, arguing that “a crude Darwinian ethos … underpins all forms of libertarianism” (page 57). It is testimony to the power of neo-liberal hegemony that even as sophisticated a thinker as Standing slips into this assumption.That aside, Standing offers a sharp distinction between work and labour, one that would surely please Bertrand Russell, who wrote “In Praise of Idleness.Russell, Bertrand. In praise of idleness and other essays. Psychology Press, 2004.” Standing is forthright – even acerbic – in taking on “the preaching of dour labourists” who continue to hold up full employment as a public policy gold standard (page 177). He regards labour as a commodity like any other offered on the market, placing him squarely in the Marxist tradition. Work, voluntarily undertaken, is something else again. A basic income would offer vital security for the unwillingly semi-employed precarious workers whose growing ranks so alarmed Standing in 2011.His libertarian approach is a welcome egalitarian antidote to the failure of so much social democratic imagination that seems unable to extricate itself from a world where jobs are an end in themselves. Standing points to the reality of much employment, so familiar to so many forced to subordinate themselves to bosses. Most, he explains, are “boring, stultifying, demeaning, isolating or even dangerous” (page 115).In a world where alienated labour persists and inequalities continue to grow, where is the pressure to reverse corrosive trends? There are, certainly, determined efforts to defend the common good in many northern welfare states. These are particularly important in the Anglosphere where neoliberalism and individualism are well-entrenched. But how would a basic income detract from such struggles? Why, asks Standing, an advocate who has been promoting basic income since the neo-liberal era was starting to erode social protections, “should basic income be a distraction from other progressive policies, rather than giving them necessary substance?” (page 115). He regards it as part of a broad social movement.Yet Standing’s book is more than a litany of cogent arguments in favour of a basic income. He draws, as the subtitle suggests, on his years of promoting the idea, sketching a pragmatic, detailed roadmap of the way forward.In this respect, Standing’s book undertakes the same task that Van Parijs and Vanderborght address in their own 2017 volume. Although Standing is not as thorough in tracing the intellectual roots of basic income as his colleagues, his description of the standard objections to basic income and suggestions for countering them are sharper and livelier.The authors of both books are aware that basic income is a popular policy piñata for both left and right wing critics. Standing is well equipped to counter politicians from New Zealand to Iceland who have described basic income as “barking mad” and “completely ridiculous” (page 110).Real change has often sprung from ideas whose time has come. Ideas commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian: An end to slavery. Votes for men without property. Votes for women. Shorter workdays. Universal health care. Guy Standing’s book presents a convincing case that basic income is an idea with a splendid heritage whose time has come. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Basic Income Studies de Gruyter

Review of Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, Guy Standing (Pelican, London 2017)

Basic Income Studies , Volume 14 (2): 1 – Dec 1, 2019

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Publisher
de Gruyter
Copyright
© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston
ISSN
1932-0183
eISSN
1932-0183
DOI
10.1515/bis-2019-0013
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Abstract

In 2011, before the rise of recent populist politicians, the former International Labour Organization economist Guy Standing wrote a book in which he warned of the rise of a growing class “prone to listen to ugly voices.” Those strident voices could well erect an influential political platform. Standing argued that the neo-liberal project had contrived an “incipient political monster” and that urgent action was needed before that creature came to life.Standing, Guy (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London, Bloomsbury, p. 1.A co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, Standing called that book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. His 2017 book on basic income offers an incisive, well-informed – and sometimes impassioned – probe of an idea with an old political pedigree that has been attracting increasing interest since his look at the precariat. For Standing, basic income is at once a policy and an urgent social movement, an essential part of the action required to stem the tides of right wing populism.This volume owes an intellectual debt to Tom Paine’s Agrarian Justice and the idea of a social dividend that is “not charity but a right.” Using this principle, Standing cuts his way through the brittle thickets of social policy that so often entangle discussions of basic income. Along the way, he puts forward a wide-ranging definition of basic income as much more than an anti-poverty measure.Standing defines basic income as “ … a social dividend paid from the collective wealth of society created and maintained by our ancestors and as a shared return on the commons and natural resources that belong to all” (page 27). He goes on to describe this rationale for understanding basic income as a social justice imperative rather than as a response to poverty.Such an approach situates basic income within the left libertarian tradition. Other leading basic income supporters share this perspective, notably Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, whose 2017 book’s opening chapter is devoted to basic income as “an instrument of freedom.”Van Parijs, P. and Vanderborght, Y. (2017). Y. Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, pp. 4–28. Standing provides a comprehensive outline of the freedom-enhancing character of what he calls “republican freedom.” Freedom to refuse a bad job or leave an abusive relationship. Freedom to undertake care work and creative work.Standing contrasts this libertarian position to neo-liberal notions of freedom and basic income, providing a useful counterpoint to left critics whose rejection of basic income automatically equates it with neoliberalism. “Support for or opposition to a policy should not be based on whether someone one does not like supports or opposes it,” notes Standing (page 114).Yet Standing sometimes succumbs to the hegemony of neo-liberal libertarianism, arguing that “a crude Darwinian ethos … underpins all forms of libertarianism” (page 57). It is testimony to the power of neo-liberal hegemony that even as sophisticated a thinker as Standing slips into this assumption.That aside, Standing offers a sharp distinction between work and labour, one that would surely please Bertrand Russell, who wrote “In Praise of Idleness.Russell, Bertrand. In praise of idleness and other essays. Psychology Press, 2004.” Standing is forthright – even acerbic – in taking on “the preaching of dour labourists” who continue to hold up full employment as a public policy gold standard (page 177). He regards labour as a commodity like any other offered on the market, placing him squarely in the Marxist tradition. Work, voluntarily undertaken, is something else again. A basic income would offer vital security for the unwillingly semi-employed precarious workers whose growing ranks so alarmed Standing in 2011.His libertarian approach is a welcome egalitarian antidote to the failure of so much social democratic imagination that seems unable to extricate itself from a world where jobs are an end in themselves. Standing points to the reality of much employment, so familiar to so many forced to subordinate themselves to bosses. Most, he explains, are “boring, stultifying, demeaning, isolating or even dangerous” (page 115).In a world where alienated labour persists and inequalities continue to grow, where is the pressure to reverse corrosive trends? There are, certainly, determined efforts to defend the common good in many northern welfare states. These are particularly important in the Anglosphere where neoliberalism and individualism are well-entrenched. But how would a basic income detract from such struggles? Why, asks Standing, an advocate who has been promoting basic income since the neo-liberal era was starting to erode social protections, “should basic income be a distraction from other progressive policies, rather than giving them necessary substance?” (page 115). He regards it as part of a broad social movement.Yet Standing’s book is more than a litany of cogent arguments in favour of a basic income. He draws, as the subtitle suggests, on his years of promoting the idea, sketching a pragmatic, detailed roadmap of the way forward.In this respect, Standing’s book undertakes the same task that Van Parijs and Vanderborght address in their own 2017 volume. Although Standing is not as thorough in tracing the intellectual roots of basic income as his colleagues, his description of the standard objections to basic income and suggestions for countering them are sharper and livelier.The authors of both books are aware that basic income is a popular policy piñata for both left and right wing critics. Standing is well equipped to counter politicians from New Zealand to Iceland who have described basic income as “barking mad” and “completely ridiculous” (page 110).Real change has often sprung from ideas whose time has come. Ideas commonplace today that were once scorned as utopian: An end to slavery. Votes for men without property. Votes for women. Shorter workdays. Universal health care. Guy Standing’s book presents a convincing case that basic income is an idea with a splendid heritage whose time has come.

Journal

Basic Income Studiesde Gruyter

Published: Dec 1, 2019

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