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The Freedom of Refusal

by Wolfgang Storz Monday, Jan. 15, 2007 at 6:59 AM

Basic income would revolutionize today's work society. Workers would gain negotiating power and employers would have to pay more for onerous work. Everyone would receive a basic income without being tested for neediness or beingforced to a return favor.


Two Readable Books on the Basic Income Theme

By Wolfgang Storz

[This article published in: Freitag 50, 12/15/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The German head of state personally announced that the basic income theme is on the political agenda and no longer only on the study desk. Hardly a year ago, Horst Kohler urged in an interview with a high-circulation magazine: Germans must “free themselves from old thinking” and “consider a kind of basic income.” Previously this theme was not taken seriously by anyone apart from a small interested circle. For example, the French scholar Andre Gorz worked on this subject and the crisis of the work society. In 1984, Thomas Schmid wrote about “Liberation from False Work. Theses on the Guaranteed Minimum Income,” an early hint that more is involved than only a question of material security.

Now the President of Germany is on board. A fairly long time ago, the Thuringian prime minister Dieter Althaus publicized his ideas of a solidarian citizen money. The Konrad-Adenauer-foundation is working on a basic income concept. The well-known successful entrepreneur and anthroposophist Gotz Werner tours talk-shows with this subject and is interviewed by the mass media and Freitag (49/06). After the recent parliamentary election in Austria, Alfred Gusenbauer, SPD chairperson said introducing a guaranteed basic income of 800 Euros in Austria would be one of his central goals if he were chancellor.

More and more influential persons speak this way but they are still only individuals. Working together in an effective alliance is a great challenge. Managers, scholars and politicians of all parties are a rather “spotted coalition,” says the renowned sociologist Claus Offe who is also devoted to this theme. An unconditional basic income is on the horizon. Many parties, associations and foundations are testing the theme in this early phase so they will be ready if it gains acceptance. Up to now, basic income was an open book that was hardly noticed. What is at stake is a concept of a new society, the overthrow of the past work society and an emergency security for the lowest sectors of society. What’s the problem?

Basic income seems like a footnote in one of the proposals of the social bureaucracy. The idea could revolutionize today’s work society. Everyone would receive a basic income without being tested for neediness and without being pressed for a return favor in paid work or socially useful work. This is nothing short of a breach with the system of paid work and with the principle of performance and return favor on which rests the German welfare state. A base income for everybody open for additional earnings would replace the social net. What would be the consequences?

Whoever enters the discussion notices immediately something fundamental is involved. This concept provokes exciting debates while also polarizing the camp of welfare state advocates. While some are enthusiastic, unionists fear “living on charity or a kind of shutdown bonus,” Wolfgang Schroeder from the IG Metal union says. Gotz Werner sees this very differently. In Freitag, he summarizes what is most important in this proposal in the simple but revolutionary sentence: “One can say No – with an unconditional basic income.” For many, the fascination of this beginning lies in this great freedom of refusal, saying No to “false work,” for example. When no one is forced to paid work any more, Werner says, employers will have to offer good interesting jobs to find workers. The balance of power tumbles down. Should everyone receive money without having to work for it? Should no one have to work any more only for money? In other words, should idlers be subsidized? Or will we all become idlers with this basic income on our accounts? If everyone can settle back, who will produce the economic growth necessary to distribute the basic income to everybody? What will happen to the guiding principle of all parties that any work is better than no work? What will become of the motto shared by conservatives and social democrats, unionists and industrialists that one who doesn’t work should not eat?

No other proposal in the last years puts the status quo so radically in question and forces us to grapple with what is essential. Whoever speaks about basic income must explain his view of the person. Will everyone work or do nothing? He must clarify what he understands by work. Is the work of a family man or care of a relative as important as the paid work of a manager? Whoever speaks about basic income must explain how high it should be and how it can be financed. The proposed amounts extend from 300 to 1500 Euros a month. The money everyone receives would replace all other past social benefits from children’s allowances and housing subsidies to unemployment benefits and pension payments. Is it just that everyone receives the same amount, those engaged for society and those who sit before the television? Will this only give businesses the pretext for lowering wages enormously? Why does a millionaire need a basic income?

On 150 pages, two sociologists Yannick Vanderborght and Philippe Van Parijs offer a good understandable survey on the history and ideal foundations of this concept, the arguments pro and con and the different variants of the conversion currently discussed. Since they support the idea in principle without siding with one variant or another, they leave out none of the critical uncertainties and scrutinize all the questions. For example, they underline the distinctions between basic income, public welfare, social security, social income, citizen wage, negative tax and minimum wage.

The authors give a good summary of the international debate both in research and politics. They focus on the question of conversion and its adversities. In other words, the two authors sovereignly guide the reader through a partly inscrutable and complex debate. Whoever wants to discuss this exciting theme should dip into this work with its very solid basic knowledge. In his excellent epilogue, Claus Offe calls it “a compact compendium of the idea of the universal basic income.”

Kai Ehlers who pleas convincingly for the basic income was just as politically engaged as the authors. He starts from the realization that the welfare state and paid work in their present form are outmoded. “Another state must be designed.” For Ehlers, this concept is a quasi “springboard” to another society and another way of production, work and life. Not surprisingly, the Russia- and Eastern Europe expert Ehlers hearkens to experiences of communal life in the Soviet Union and Russia (including the expanded family economy) and grapples with theoreticians like Rudolf Steiner and Frithjof Bergmann and self-government- and cooperative projects (exchange markets, consumer cooperatives, regional money).

On this background, he discusses a design of society in which a universal basic income, basic self-organized communal provision and additional personal income are inseparably connected and add up to a total income. Kai Ehlers offers stimulating and vague ideas with many interesting details and a great design of another society. What will the different state look like? Basic communal provision sounds like a revival of personal vegetable beds and the motto of alternatives: the best income consists in a modest life. Whether this can be more than a niche-program in a modern industrial society is very questionable. Then Ehlers meets Werner. Werner did not come accidentally to the proposal of financing basic income through a very high sales tax. In his opinion, people can gain the great freedom of refusal from a modest way of life and reducing their spending, not only from the basic income. Whether the economic system produces sufficient surplus value to finance the basic income is still open.

This proposal of an unconditional basic income produces more questions than answers. Nevertheless the social problems, the increasing tendencies to exclusion, are too great in our society, the solutions discussed in the past are too faint-hearted and the concept of a basic income too fascinating to reproach the concept for its weaknesses.

Hopefully these two books will meet great interest and flow into a broad discussion across the fronts. This is a proposal that polarizes in the good sense and deepens contradictions so they can no longer be pasted over. It also does not allow any rotten compromises. Finally, it represents a robust alternative to the uniform broth of the political parties.

Yannick Vanderborght/ Philippe Van Parijs. Ein Grundeinkommen fur alle? Campus, Frankfurt 2005, 14.90 Eur

Kai Ehlers: Grundeinkommen fur alle – Springbrett in eine integrierte Gesellschaft, Pforte Verlag 2006, 14 Eur

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