Universal basic income: Revolutionizing technosphere governance

Universal basic income UBI has been suggested by many authors as a major institutional innovation in designing the economy of the future. One motivation that increasingly gains acceptance is that it might be the solution to the problem of technological unemployment created by digitization and automation. In our context, that would translate into the assumption that the technosphere will grow continuously by means of enhancing productivity, so that eventually human work can be partly released. With UBI, however, that would not define as ‘unemployment’, but as an achievement: The technosphere would sustain a genuinely free human life. But there are also dystopian views on that, which point to the resulting distorted division of labour in society: There would be a stratum of technosphere professionals who manage and control technology and its applications, and all others would either work in menial services and other low-paid jobs that could not yet be automatized, or, well, do what they want? Of course, the UBI supporters’ claim is that what they want is authentic community life, artistic creativity and self-fulfillment, and care for others, including non-humans. Indeed, a universal basic income could make a co-existence of ‘society’ and ‘community’ in Ferdinand Tönnies’ and Karl Polanyi’s sense possible and economically sustainable, which would even power the vision that the notion of community might include the entire biosphere: The productivity surplus of the technosphere could sponsor universal care for life. Yet, who controls the technosphere, and, would growth of the technosphere still compete with the flourishing of the biosphere, as we experience under the shadow of the climate crisis?

The question is whether empowerment of community life is the pivotal argument in defending the case for UBI. One issue is that the standard conception of ‘labour’ is maintained, thus resulting in the vision that two different types of labour would emerge, with one closely tied to the technosphere, and the other autonomous. But autonomy does not necessarily mean disengagement and, as a final consequence, loss of competence and eroding of the capacity of managing the technosphere (a majority of caretakers, self-professed artists and eco-citizens versus a minority of engineers and economists). In this context, it is highly significant that most socialists were always lukewarm with the idea of UBI, because they believe that work is a defining feature of the conditio humana and a fundamental right and duty at the same time: On the one hand, UBI seems to violate fundamental norms of distributive justice if some people earn an income without working, on the other hand, work is conceived as a core activity in developing a personality and contributing to society, and therefore the main goal should be to make work more human (abolishing alienation), and not to relieve people from work and condemn them to idleness, as benevolent as that may be.

Indeed, classical socialism is a doctrine closely wedded to industrialism and hence, implicitly tying technosphere and human life neatly together. In this view, UBI is ambivalent, as it frees us from the constraints and controls of living in the technosphere, but at the same time would disconnect us from technosphere governance, like drivers who enjoy driving without having any glimpse about how the machine works. So, what is the solution?

In my view, the most important argument in favour of UBI is that it creates a new dimension of human freedom. This happens because we would attain autonomy in deciding on our participation in the economy. Together with my colleague Stephan Bannas, we have developed an alternative to UBI that might resolve the contradictions that I have discussed so far, tentatively labelled ‘community money’ COMMON. In a nutshell, community money is a claim on UBI, but does not automatically result in an income transfer. We are still working on the details, but just to give you the spirit: Every adult would receive a monthly instalment of COMMON that could be exchanged into money or saved (hence, no transfer at the moment) and which corresponds to a minimum income level in the society in question (say, 1000 Euro p.m. in Germany). The introduction of COMMON, as in other proposals on UBI, would be accompanied by radical reforms of other forms of government assistance, especially unemployment benefits and basic public pensions. COMMON is the substitute. COMMON is different from money in several important respects: First, its value is inflation-indexed, second, the individual accounts are deleted with the death of the owner, and third, it can be only dispensed in instalments. Given the construction, individuals would have strong incentives to accumulate COMMON, for example, for upgrading their pension later in life which otherwise would just be the minimum. Only then COMMON would be exchanged into money. In addition, our proposal connects COMMON with the tax system: We suggest the introduction of a 100 percent tax on inheritance, which, however, can be lowered by paying with COMMON, which therefore would operate like a tax credit: People who succeed in the economy and get rich will use COMMON in this way. Therefore, COMMON would tie up with a scheme for redistributing wealth in society.

I do not go into further details here. Why would such a scheme resolve the problems of UBI that I described previously? Let me just give an illustration. The point is that people would continue to work in the regular economy, but would obtain an entirely new form of freedom. Consider the case of an engineer in the age of forty. Her company would adopt a business project that she regards as highly problematic from the ecological or political point of view. With COMMON, she can now act as an ethically autonomous and responsible person. She might openly challenge her bosses, and if they do not change their view, just quit. In this moment, she knows that she will receive the monthly instalment of COMMON anyway and that she can also activate her COMMON account that she accumulated over two decades: That would be amount to 240,000 Euro, releasable, say, in instalments of additional two payments of 2000 Euro p.m. Her bold decision to quit is without substantial risk, although she might consider effects on her pensions, as she spends her COMMON. But probably she will find a new job soon, and after all, she might have also regular savings. And so on.

Here is my point: COMMON, other than UBI, would not make the alternative salient just to step out of the regular economy but would induce a continuous and reasoned deliberation how to act best in its context. Everyone gets the chance to act in an ethically responsible way, everyone would get involved in governing the technosphere. If bosses and shareholders can just impose their ‘strategy’ on the companies, there is not much scope for action on part of the knowledgeable employees. But with COMMON, bosses know that people can just quit, and thereby can drain the company of precious skills and accumulated knowledge. Hence, companies would turn into deliberative arenas where employees can activate their ethical and political views and values.

The devil is in the details, certainly, but Stephan and I work out the details. In this post, I just want to show that UBI can be constructed as COMMON in a way that would create the potential of transforming the core units of technosphere evolution, the corporations, into communities. This is not pre-determined, but will emerge out of an institutional setting where COMMON radically overturns the power relation between labour and capital. With the new form of personal liberty, corporations would become communities of governing the technosphere, hence creating a new form of collective human agency at its heart.

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