UBI, Work And “Labo(u)r” Parties

By Tim Hollo April 6, 2018

Green Institute - UBI Work And Labour - LaborIt was excellent to watch Richard Di Natale fully embrace and promote the idea of Universal Basic Income in his speech to the National Press Club this week. It’s clear the idea has made its way from the edges of Greens policy and politics into a central position, and that is great news for Australian politics as a whole – it stretches the bounds of our political conversations, forcing us to consider bigger ideas as we confront the huge challenges of the 21st century.

What I’ve found particularly fascinating and illuminating has been the virulent attacks on UBI from the centre left and, most particularly, from the Labor Party. It’s very revealing about what has happened to labo(u)r politics over recent decades and worth exploring a little.

The labour movement was born of campaigns to reduce work, with the eight our day and holiday and sick leave all about helping working people not have their lives driven, determined and defined by their work. At some point as Labo(u)r parties were slowly but surely captured by the neoliberal hegemony, the focus on the “dignity of working people” was replaced by a focus on the “dignity of work”. There is an important distinction here which has been lost.

It’s fascinating the extent to which a norm privileging paid work over any other form of social or economic contribution has become embedded in Labor politics. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the value of working hard a special focus of her personality as leader, raising it consistently in parliamentary debate, in interviews and in speeches. In her speech to the ALP campaign launch in the 2013 election campaign, for example, Ms Gillard said: “I have believed all of my life in the power of hard work, in the importance of work, in defining a life in the importance of work”. Similarly, current Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has spoken of Labor’s goal of “ensuring dignity through work for Australians” in explicitly rejecting the idea of a UBI and shutting down those from the grassroots and left of his own party wanting to talk about it.

It strikes me that this is an understandable but problematic perspective from the labour movement, which has tragically become couched in an over-riding belief in labour as the only legitimate space for social organisation, and an outdated  conception of work which internalised the “protestant work ethic” imposed on workers by early industrial capitalists. From this perspective, UBI is seen as a threat to organised labour, because it is read as challenging the primacy of paid work in our society.

This fetishisation of paid labour strikes me as fundamentally anti-labour. A true labour party would see UBI as perfectly aligned with the eight hour day, paid holiday and sick leave, the right to collectively bargain, the welfare state, and other successful efforts to improve the lot of workers.

A slightly more nuanced but still, I believe, misplaced aspect of the opposition to UBI is that idea that it will lead to a loss of agency for people. This is part of the fetishisation of work as it assumes that agency can only come from paid labour. In fact, all the evidence from UBI trials both in the 1970s and more recently, as well as from places with more generous and less punitive welfare arrangements than our own, is that it increases people’s agency, making them feel more in control of their own lives. And of course it does. That’s the point. It’s all about enabling people to make their own choices in life.

Along these lines, there is an excellent political space for the Greens to lead a discussion away from the “dignity of work” towards the “dignity of participation”, promoting the idea that has broad public support that real personal agency already comes far more from non-paid-labour activities such as volunteering, creativity, caring for each other. The more we boil our lives down to nothing more than what we can sell our labour for, the less we appreciate and value other modes of contribution and participation that, if anything, create more value for ourselves and our society. As long as our basic needs are met.

The most troubling reason of all that I have seen to oppose UBI is that “it’s too big an ask and never going to happen.” There is nothing sadder, to me, than seeing somebody from the left use that as an excuse. If we and our predecessors had taken that view, we would never have torn down slavery, nevermind civil rights, universal suffrage, and, most recently, equal marriage. We have to aim high if we want to achieve anything at all.

This issue has a long way to go as it plays out. There will be brilliant debates and discussions as it does (as well as, doubtless, some very unilluminating ones), and I’m delighted that the Green Institute and the Greens party are leading the conversation.


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