[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2018.]
My twin brother is a poet. Usually when I tell my adult English students this they ask me how he is able to survive economically.
They are always surprised when I say that Australia has an unemployment benefit paid monthly by the government and that this benefit does not stop after six months, as it does in Spain.
Of course my brother, just like all the other recipients of ‘the dole,’ as it’s called there, have to jump through bureaucratic hoops and many have recently been victims of all sorts of horrific stuff ups by a system that is being privatised.
Yes. Soon the payments the poorest live on will be controlled by businesses that put making a profit from their ‘clients’ as their biggest interest. In Australia these unemployment benefits are only just enough to live on if they are combined with other government payments such as rent assistance.
I have a friend living in Barcelona who is a very talented graphic artist and is also a photographer with a unique eye. Like me, he teaches to pay the bills because his creative work does not get him and his family consistent income. Also like me, he enjoys his classes but would ideally like to be spending more time on using his talents to make new ‘products’ as our consumer society would insist on calling them.
But there is a wider question for every society here. Is a form of guaranteed basic income a good idea?
Some people argue that the public purse should not pay people to do what non-creatives believe to be just hobbies but this is missing a vital point. Practically every industry is now using greater numbers of robots and other types of automation and mechanisation.
When I was leaving university in the early 1990’s a guaranteed job for life was working in a bank. We now know this rapidly became not the case and branch closures across the world have meant the loss of most banking jobs.
Mainly this has been because machines now do the jobs that people used to do and the finance sector is only one place where this type of change is marching on. At Amazon for example, every job that can be done by a mechanical device is being done by one.
The people who work there have to keep up with the productivity of machines (even if it costs them their nervous systems) or they are simply fired and replaced with another very low paid worker who works long, long shifts almost exactly as a robot does.
Not long ago, I myself once worked in a full-time job for one of the world’s largest smartphone companies (sitting at a computer) until one day my right arm completely froze-up after months of tendinitis problems caused by using a mouse at a high speed.
I was sacked the same day I came back to the office after being on medical leave for this problem. My body just would not work as a machine does.
The question that has to be asked and answered is what do our societies do to deal with increasingly significant numbers of people who don’t have enough paid work or even any paid work.
Economic survival can be close to impossible. In much of Mediterranean Europe the family unit has typically helped out, as have charities but this has created an uneven coverage of the basics of life for many people.
The obvious solution is a universal basic income for every individual in society. Europe’s newest progressive political party DiEM25 believes that the funding for this “should come from a dividend, financed from the returns on all capital; a ‘public’ percentage of companies’ profits, especially for companies that commercialise technology developed from public funding.”
In other words, “Technological progress should not simply serve capitalism.”
The great benefit from this is that it would allow creativity to flourish and people who prefer paid work at a higher income can do that too.