Mitja Stefancic interviews Guy Standing
Interview with Guy Standing by Mitja Stefancic
Guy Standing is a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, and a founder and co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), an NGO promoting basic income as a right. His latest book titled Battling Eight Giants: Basic Income Now has been published just a few months ago.
In this piece he answers five questions posed by Mitja Stefancic.
1. How does your new book “Battling Eight Giants” (2020) upgrade what you proposed in your previous books?
The book came out in March 2020, and was an outcome of my previous work. Underlying the set of books is the view that rentier capitalism, globalisation, the electronics revolution and the growth of the precariat had generated eight major threats to a Good Society and these had made the economic system increasingly fragile, in which, unless a new income distribution system is forged with a basic income system as its anchor, any economic downturn would be catastrophic.
The book draws on the imagery of William Beveridge in his epoch-defining report of 1942, which ushered in the post-war welfare state capitalism, in which he stated that it was ‘a time for revolutions, not for patching’ and that the challenge was to slay Five Giants – Disease, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor and Want. I believe there are Eight modern Giants – Inequality, Insecurity, Debt, Stress, Precarity, Robots, Extinction and Populism. They are all inter-linked. In the case of automation, if the socio-economic structure were different it could be positive, but so far it has been disruptive and fostered worse rentier capitalism.
I believe that a basic income is justified for ethical reasons – common justice, freedom and basic security – and elaborated on that in my main book on Basic Income (2017). However, in the end game of rentier capitalism, in which the commons have been plundered and universalism in the social protection system has been jettisoned, it has become an economic imperative. This is now being shown in the emerging pandemic slump.
2. In your new book you suggest that today in some of the richest countries in the world, more than 50 % of households in poverty have people in jobs, and inequality appears to be the highest it has been for 100 years.
These are very predictable outcomes from a global economic system that began with the ascendancy of the ideologues of the Mont Pelerin Society in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as adapted by their political practitioners led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Financial market liberalisation enabled finance to reshape itself and convert the global economy into rentier capitalism, in which more and more of the income flowed to the owners of property or assets – physical, financial and intellectual property.
The outcomes include the well-known trend, globally and within individual economies, for a declining share of income going to those who perform labour. This has been accompanied by the emergence of a new class structure superimposed on some old structures in some developing countries. The new mass class is the precariat. Too many casual commentators have claimed that this is about people having insecure jobs and dismissed it on the grounds that insecure jobs have always existed. I cannot believe they have read the books, since I state as clearly as possible that the precariat is not defined that way. It and the other class groups are defined by a combination of distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution and relations to the state. In the second book, I focus on the third dimension, and offer a Precariat Charter for turning those in the precariat from denizens into citizens (Standing, 2014).
The key point about modern inequality is that it reflects the rising power of rent extraction. This has been reflected by the fact that wealth has risen relative to income, and wealth inequality is much greater than income inequality. Classes can, in part, be defined by the structure of what I have called social income. The top three class groups – the plutocracy, elite and salariat – obtain a large proportion of their income in the form of various forms of rent, whereas the precariat is exploited through rental mechanisms as well as in the labour market.
Developing this theme further led to what I have felt is the final piece in the conceptual puzzle. Historically, the commons have provided ‘the poor’s overcoat’, lessening social income inequality. But in the era of rentier capitalism, accelerated in the austerity phase, there has been a plunder of the commons, via enclosure, privatisation, neglect, financialisation and neo-colonialisation (Standing, 2019). This has substantially increased social income inequality, to the detriment of the precariat.
3. There seems to be a large trade-off between healthy life (e.g. less stress, less working hours etc.) and the right to an employment enabling citizens a decent life (economic wealth). Do you have any viable solution to solve such trade-off?
I think the notion of a ‘right to employment’ is nonsensical. In a market economy, it may be necessary for a lot of people to be in jobs. But being in a job for the vast majority of people is being in a position of subordination, which is why labour law, unlike other branches of law, presumes a master-servant relationship.
By contrast, I can conceive of a ‘right to work’, which leads back to my advocacy of basic income. Automation does not necessarily mean accepting what you seem to mean by ‘precarity’. It could be liberating us from so-called ‘proper jobs’. Then more people could devote more time to work, not labour, including care work and ecological work, on preserving life and nature, rather than on resource-depleting labour.
4. You suggest that Basic Income could be a viable solution for the future. How could you convince wealthy and powerful lobbies in the so-called ‘advanced societies’ to take on your message and agree with it?
Well, as it happens, the corporate elite are in a confused state on this, as is the political libertarian right. As a green-left political economist, I have been mildly amused to be invited to speak on basic income, as well as on rentier capitalism and the precariat, in Davos for three years in a row, and have been invited to do so in Silicon Valley corporate events and in Singularity University.
Basically, there are three conflicting rationales the elites take. Some ideological libertarians, such as the folk at the Cato Institute and the still-going-strong Mont Pelerin Society and the Bilderberg Group, tend to favour a basic income as the next-best to their desire for a minimalist state. I think they are in a bunker, and after this pandemic their intellectual stock will have junk status. But we should not mind having their support, since I am confident that we can defeat their other arguments. We need a strong social state.
My friends on the left who cite the fact that some libertarians support basic income as ‘proof’ that it must be bad should stop worrying on that score. Adolf Hitler believed in a nationalised health service and had two copies of Beveridge’s report in his bunker, heavily marked with approving notes. Does that mean we should be opposed to the NHS or welfare states? Moreover, I believe strongly that people who have basic income security become more confident and energised about fighting for other rights.
The second reason for the corporate elite to be coming round in favour is that what they want is a stable sustainable economic system in which corporations can make predictable profits. They believe, as did Milton Friedman, that people with basic security are more rational and make better economic decisions. That is probably right. Related to that, the plutocracy and elite worry that they have been winning too much, and that the pitchforks might be coming in their direction. They may be right there too.
The third reason, and I have shared platforms with leading names on the forefront of AI saying this, is that many believe the robots and automation are going to create a ‘jobless’ future. I do not believe that scenario; it is the reincarnation of the ‘lump of labour fallacy’. But I do believe that this technological revolution is unique in being disruptive – contributing to insecurity and stress – and generating much greater inequality.
5. Do you think that the crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic may become a stimulus to create such a Basic Income and search for a more sustainable future?
As I have argued in several papers, the pandemic was the trigger to an economic crisis waiting to happen, as I tried to show in my book, The Corruption of Capitalism (2017). Without a doubt it is making the global economic slump potentially the worst in history. But we are experiencing a transformative crisis, analogous to the crisis point in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, when the short-term outcome could go either way, towards authoritarian neo-fascism or a progressive Global Transformation. If we could somehow avoid the mistakes of the post-2008 strategy, which merely created the conditions for an even worse crisis, we could revive our societies. I believe a basic income system is no longer just ethically desirable, it is that and an economic imperative. As argued in Battling Eight Giants, it is the ecological threat, extinction, that will be the tipping point to bring many more of us to support an income distribution system anchored in a basic income.
Beveridge, W H (1942) Social Insurance and Allied Services: Beveridge Report, HM Stationery Office
Polanyi, K ( 1957) The Great Transformation, Beacon Press
Standing, G (2014) A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, Bloomsbury
Standing, G (2017) Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, Pelican
Standing, G (2017) The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Biteback Publishing
Standing, G (2019) Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, Pelican
Standing, G (2020) Battling Eight Giants: Basic Income Now, Bloomsbury.
From: pp.5-6 of WEA Commentaries 10(2), May 2020