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NGO of the Week: Basic Income Network

by Gunter Solken Monday, Nov. 20, 2006 at 1:25 PM

The internationally practiced social cuts sold as combating unemployment have terrible social and economic effects. A grave psychic depression has already seized society. Since the world economy becomes ever more efficient, what will become of 80% w/o work?


Interview with Gunter Solken

[A year after the founding of the network, the nearly unknown idea of introducing a basic income is discussed in the media and political organizations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Its first German-language congress recently took place in Vienna. The GLOCALIST interviewed Gunter Solken (GS), one of the spokespersons of the German Basic Income Network. This interview is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, ]

GLOCALIST: Mr. Solken, how do you explain the enormous popularity for the idea of introducing a basic income?

Gunter Solken: People feel the economy and society are enmeshed in a powerful upheaval. The increasing mass unemployment afflicting all population sectors is an indicator of that upheaval. They sense the governments in Germany, the EU and the G8 all have no direction. Most parties represented in the parliaments only pursue a policy of the status quo garnished with the demand to tighten ones belt. This policy does not have any Good News for people, cannot be communicated credibly and only solves the symptoms of problems. The internationally practiced social cuts sold as combating unemployment have terrible social and economic consequences. A grave psychic depression that has already seized society and not only individuals goes along with an obvious human incapacitation. No one can be sure any more of still having a job tomorrow and not being socially marginalized as receivers of alms and petitioners. That hardly anyone still believes in an improvement of the situation through politics is characteristic for the whole situation.

GLOCALIST: Do you think the idea of basic income is Good News?

GS: Absolutely! The increasing mass unemployment ultimately reflects the breath-taking advances in productivity and the repression of human labor power. Machinery works for us today where we have to grind in the past. This is already Good News, the liberation from classical paid work that is very possible today. The progressive technological advances make possible a measure of freedom that earlier generations could not dare to dream.

GLOCALIST: Can it be assumed that mass unemployment is not a temporary phenomenon?

GS: If nothing new occurs to us, unemployment will accompany us in the long run on account of the rationalization dynamic. There are serious prognoses that the world economy to the end of this century will be constantly more efficient and manage with a paid worker share of only 20 percent. This would be an 80/20 society. Then we must ask firstly what will become of the 80 percent without paid work and secondly who will then act as buyers or customers on this market. The 20 percent will not be enough and the 80 percent will have no money if present policy continues. A totally new thinking will be necessary. As we see it, a radical reduction of working hours alone will not help, only a bundle of measures centering on the introduction of a basic income supporting existence and participation.

GLOCALIST: What is an unconditional basic income?

GS: A tax-financed monthly income to which everyone has a right, women and men, children and seniors, working persons and non-working persons, even millionaires individual, ensuring existence, without need tests and without work coercion. It is the demand for a legal social dividend for all who are permanently displaced in an economy that becomes richer and richer measured by the gross domestic product. We dont want the gap between rich and poor to become even greater. As in the present alms policy toward those who have fallen out of the paid work process, the current development detracts from human dignity and leads to a gradual loss of individual freedoms and free spaces. An individual, unconditional basic income would remove distress and open up very new freedoms, for example the freedom of a self-determined decision about organizing ones life. Then we could decide whether to pursue a well-paid paid work or be satisfied with less, that is the basic income, engaging in other activities in social, cultural or political areas or perhaps establishing ones own business with products and services that are really needed.

GLOCALIST: Many will say this sounds like socialism or even communism.

GS: I admit this may be the most radical idea of the last 150 years. Unlike the Communist Manifesto, it does not shake property relations but massively reorganizes existing conditions. I can only invite everyone to use his or her own fantasy and imagine how a basic income perhaps 1000 Euro monthly would change his or her life and the possibilities in this life. The next step would be envisioning a whole society with basic income.

GLOCALIST: Fantasy sounds like a dream or at best a vision.

GS: The vision will remain a dream if we do not clear away the existing hesitations and convince opponents. First of all, we have the plan of infecting society with this idea. The incubation time is damn long and resistance against new ideas is rather strong. Finally, deeply rooted social norms must be overcome. Think only of the saying in effect since biblical times: Whoever does not work should not eat.

GLOCALIST: How do you oppose this saying?

GS: This saying has no right in a world economy that almost relies more on machines than on persons. Machines do not eat. Unfortunately the readiness to invest in machines is great and increases. Investments in so-called human capital beginning with education expenditures decrease more and more. We cannot afford this masochism any longer. Introducing a basic income would signify a partial re-direction of investments to education, family promotion, integration, social engagement and culture. This change of course is urgently necessary for political and economic reasons. We owe this change of course to the coming generations.

GLOCALIST: How can you win followers?

GS: Within a short year, we managed to make the nearly unknown demand into a theme: for individuals, in families, in initiatives, with the media and finally sporadically in parties. There is great approval and some Yes, but opinions with doubts as to feasibility. I think we have gained the rank of a serious alternative to the mainstream. There are opposing opinions from politics, unions and business. But would it have been better if the idea had been simply ignored? We have received support and encouragement from the parties, unions and businesses. The discussion is underway and opposing opinions and reservations are part of the democratic dialogue. They are steps on the way to realizing this idea.

GLOCALIST: when you say we, who is that? Who or what is the Basic Income Network?.

GS: At its founding on July 9, 2004, the network only consisted of a handful of scholars and representatives of social and political initiatives. Today we are around 200 individual members and seven organizations reflecting a broad social spectrum from income support initiatives to the Catholic Workers movement. In the past, our work was one on the net. On our homepage, we have an archive of nearly all the scholarly articles and press reports on basic income that can be downloaded. A debate organizer facilitates a very spirited discussion and edits a newsletter every two months. With a speakers pool, we participate in discussion events of different organizations, initiatives and parties. Together with the Austrian network and Attac-Austria and Germany, we recently hosted the first German language congress on the unconditional basic income that was very successful and was even reported in the media. All members, even the six person speakers circle with a balance of women and men, work voluntarily.

GLOCALIST: Who and how can one collaborate in the network?

GS: Membership is vital. The only prerequisite is agreement with the four criteria for a basic income: the amount must be at a subsistence level, individual, without need tests and without work coercion. All persons and social organizations can become members but not parties. No member fee is charged. Our weak spots are deficient financial resources without which we cannot really manage despite the voluntary engagement of many members. The next member meeting in Berlin will be on November 26 and 27. Id like to take this opportunity to refer to our donor bank account on our website, www.grundeinkommen.de. With others, the basic income network opens up the chance to cooperate in realizing one of the most exciting ideas of our epoch: introducing the unconditional basic income.

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