Universal Basic Income isn’t a new idea but it’s getting a lot of airtime lately and winning supporters, especially as the economics are shown to align with what seems like a clear and present social benefit. In short, U.B.I. means everyone in the country receives a minimum baseline income, from the government, to take care of the necessities of life. It’s usually presented as no-strings attached i.e. available for all, regardless of wealth or employment status, and it’s separate to provisions like welfare, social security, disability allowance. The economics square because it’s an injection into the circular flow, stimulating and stabilising local business, rents, high street spending, etc. Traditionally UBI has been advocated by the left wing as an egalitarian measure liberating the working class from poverty and resisted by the right as a handout encouraging the poor to refuse necessary menial jobs, contrary to the principles of austerity.
Now, democracy can be a way to elect a fair representative government and to an extent this is what it has brought about in most of the industrialised world. For this dynamic to continue working, however, against pressure from mature crony capitalism, the population must remain politically ‘woke’ to their best interests. Anything less than an educated – and vigilant – population results in vast swathes of the voter public susceptible to propaganda. This tends to be controlled by authority and corporate money, dangerous if left unchecked.
DEMOCRACY UNDER SIEGE
Authoritarian vested interests will always be on the lookout for ways to consolidate power. Corporations are immortal so work their profit agenda with patient manipulation, fixing on populism as an effective tool to condition the most naive sections of society via its worst instincts, to vote as best suits the agenda of vested interests. This can include voting away everyone’s rights, your freedom included.
The potential for a dictatorship of the voting majority is a systemic vulnerability, and it’s inherent to universal suffrage. Individual freedom comes with risk, including the potential to be suckered into a mobthink that enables authoritarians to make evil laws through apparently benign democratic institutions. This is playing out in the Brexit supporting working classes in the UK who’re enabling a national erosion of free movement and human rights. Ironically, they’ll be first to suffer the worst of the long-term consequences just as having been duped by the Conservatives in 2010 ended up being a vote for austerity and the corrosion of public services on which they most relied for quality of day-to-day life.
Frustrating dupes indeed yet unlikely to understand let alone thank anyone trying to point this out. To date, the entrenched interests have been content to imperfectly but exploit the credibility and docility of the electorate, admitting of periods of push back (i.e. left-wing governments). This, flattered by the advance of technology, has amounted to general progress for the middle class and, until the 2008 crash, the impression of a decade on decade improvement for the working classes too. The unbroken uptrend ended in the post-2008 recession.
The terrible twins austerity and populism have been the risky but audacious response of an establishment whose priority is continued shielding of their institutions and individuals from the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis. At some point there will be a voter backlash that brings a genuinely left-wing anti-establishment government into power. UBI will be on the agenda, an obvious antidote to austerity, and it’ll be a temptation for any benign government trying to protect and compensate those voters responsible for putting them in power. UBI will be an easy sell, no doubt. It’ll have enough popular support to win through, even in a climate of artificial fear and habitual xenophobia. Sadly, Universal Basic Income will also be the most dangerous risk for the long-term future of free society since the Second World War.
EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION
Education is the key to a genuinely robust democracy, but few countries have educated their citizens top to bottom. Recent governments on both sides of the Atlantic testify the truth of this vulnerability.
A “woke” voter public isn’t achieved through taught dogma, nor necessarily by dint of education to some middle class paradigm. Rather the electorate needs to be given a certain level of independent self-awareness. Lessons in pragmatic cynicism would be a good start – e.g. when facing any public narrative, focus on following the stakes, the money and the power – in short, the voter needs a toolset for cutting through rhetoric and propaganda and snake-oil salesmen that hoodwinks them into voting on their worst instincts. Without it, democracy is as likely to throw up authoritarian abuses of power as a non-democratic politburo; and with greater durability when it happens. The state powers-that-be know this.
Many countries approach broad qualitative education as a basic provision, seeing it as a safeguard against extremism and short-term fads that work against the national interest. In the US and the UK it’s been government policy to resist the creation of an awakened electorate at all costs. This mandate has been a consistent feature since the expansion of universal suffrage.
The anti-fact groupthink polarising British and American society today is an inevitable consequence of many decades’ anti-education legislation. It’s also playing out a corollary: gradual economic degradation relative to the rest of the world. This loss of ground had been mostly offset in the 20th century by ugly but utilitarian global economic imperialism – making the most of historical advantages – but can’t be kept from the people forever.
Poor education means an increasingly unproductive unemployable population. This is a bad long-term outlook that’s been clear for decades. It’s one trend that’ll compound the need for Universal Basic Income as calls grow for a solution to the increasing pressure on social security. Automation, likewise, continues to advance, making more and more useless the narrow vocational training most receive in British and American state schools (i.e. one that keeps the proletariat busy but needs no progressive higher education).
Education nowadays needs to equip abstract lateral thinkers and adaptable problem solvers, but this will not happen. It is considered too dangerous by governments with a history of doubling down on perpetuating social divisions based on wealth, to prevent any kind of political awakening slipping in by the back door.
LEFT AND RIGHT
The Left has no history of express opposition to Universal Basic Income and will probably bring it into their manifesto as a necessary vote winner against the winning formula of populism and fear used by conservative opponents. At first, the Right will resist the “handout” mentality; while they remain in power.
In the ebb and flow of winner-takes-all electoral systems, the Left will get into power. UBI, pitched as an antidote to austerity, also is a practical quick-fix to the degraded welfare system. It’ll be demonstrated as economically manageable (even beneficial) while also simpatico with the extant capitalist paradigm. No boats need be unnecessarily rocked by bringing UBI into the mix.
The stability insured by introducing UBI will be a key point as it flips from being a thorny question of public spending to one where citizen rights, expediency, manifesto promise and state security align. It’s easy to see how UBI, as a government subsidy, will quickly gain support from entrenched business interests. Consider the plight of low-rent landlords and high street retailers. Support will quickly spread through the media to speed up UBI being sold to the population, establishing itself as a new civil expectation.
THE OPIATE CANNULA
The Right will have seen the wood for the trees by this point. They’ll consult their backroom think-tanks and progress to publicly wanting UBI to bring society closer to a stable paradigm. This stability is the key, however. For the Right it means helping to ringfence the hegemony of the 1%: the top stays at the top, the rest stay at the bottom. UBI can handle food and shelter and life’s necessities, and it won’t be hard for a government of either stripe to indoctrinate the electorate into voting for continuity long term.
UBI will become a gateway drug to perpetual populism, a democratic totalitarianism where the 1% rule forever and the 51% + always vote ‘the right way’. Take out ambition by conditioning an appropriately limiting school system and life for the lower classes becomes something akin to a pleasant reality show. The Left will have been suckered into supporting perpetual UBI because it seems like a liberation for the people, a solution to any burden on society to provide its citizens’ home, food and – on paper – freedom from oppression.
It may well be a kind of solution for these universal human needs, but then so would be a hospital bed and a never-ending opiate cannula. If the government were to propose the latter, one would correctly suspect it might abuse its status as the ‘dealer’. It shouldn’t be an enormous leap of the imagination to perceive how a society addicted to the no strings Universal Basic Income could see the creation of millions of docile proletariat voters easily manipulated ‘from above’ into acquiescent conformity. This subversion of mass voting includes underwriting an authoritarian government with all the firm foundations of modern democracy.
SAVE OUR SOULS
How will anyone persuade an uneducated, self-centred electorate to vote against such appealing short-term security as no strings attached Universal Basic Income? Telling them they’ll be voting away some abstract future freedoms will seem a flimsy tautology, more likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction against than encourage people to reject UBI. What if the lumpen proletariat prefer comfortable subjugation in the safe embrace of permanent fascist totalitarianism? Comfort might matter more than freedom. And if the majority vote away freedoms they don’t care about, in return for the certainty of Universal Basic Income and its implicit absolution from annoyances like unfulfilled ambition or opportunity or difficult aspirations for self-improvement, what can (or should) the democratically powerless intellectual minority do to prevent it?