“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
– Charles Darwin
Scientists, doctors, environmentalists, and others who know what they’re talking about, are saying that planet Earth is in such dire straits that the global economic system must change. And urgently. But paralysis tends to set in. Yet it’s not impossible. An unconditional, universal basic income is an achievable practical answer that would establish a solid basis for change. Moreover, after the nightmare of Bolsonaro’s cruel, destructive, democracy-trashing mandate, a new antifascist government in Brazil after the October elections could lead the way for the whole world, showing that it can be done.
How to contribute, from here in the south of Europe, to the debate about basic income in Brazil? With the pandemic and the global climate crisis making it clearer than ever before that this planet desperately needs an end to the depredations of capitalism and a new socioeconomic system that respects nature in all its animal, vegetable, and mineral forms, we believe we should share all we’ve learned about this revolutionary measure that—by definition at least—would abolish poverty since it is universal, unconditional, and of an amount above the poverty line.
In other words, it guarantees the most basic human right of all, the foundation on which all other rights rest: the right to material and social existence. A universal basic income wouldn’t only abolish poverty but also acceptance of poverty as a capitalist mainstay, the result of humans exploiting, instead of caring for and about, other humans.
Brazil is perhaps the country that offers most hope that a start could be made here, not least because of its long history of trying to introduce a universal basic income. It’s the only country in the world to have passed a Basic Income law (2004, in Lula’s first mandate). Yet the law remained a dead letter, unknown to most of the population, and hence not understood as enshrining a right. Nevertheless, it did give rise to the means tested Bolsa Família covering some 14.3 million families (47 million people, almost 25% of the population) until the Bolsonaro government abolished it in December 2021. It was replaced with an emergency programme which, as a temporary handout and not a right, consists of just four means-tested payments of R$600 ($116,75), one per month, to some 54 million people including previous recipients of the Bolsa Família programme, precarious workers, and unemployed (but not Indigenous and Black communities, the hardest hit by the pandemic). Now that the polls are showing that Lula could win outright in the first round of the election in October this year, associations, movements economists, philosophers, social scientists, and all state governors—are calling for implementation of Law 10.835/2004 on basic income.
So, here are some thoughts on the matter, starting with three main assumptions, which could apply to basic income projects around the world. They automatically constitute a radical break with the dog-eat-dog practices of the neoliberal system.
1) In the critical situation we’re faced with this century, societies should uncouple access to income (and other resources) from access to employment. Access to income and other resources should be universal, open to everyone without exception, as happens with universal public health systems where they exist, and unconditional (i.e., not dependent on the circumstances of people’s existence). The basic income would be a pillar of this project and, by its very existence, would proclaim that human lives aren’t for sale, that everyone has the right to live in decent conditions.
2) There is still resistance to the idea and practice of basic income, mainly from the right but also from sectors of the working class that balk at the concepts of universality and unconditionality out of fear, encouraged by a good part of the media, that unconditional access to resources would mean that people couldn’t and wouldn’t work (the so-called labour bias). This makes it difficult to write about basic income possibilities. Though we are convinced by the ethical and political sense of unconditionality and universality (basic income as a human right), we understand that it may not yet be possible, or even conceivable as a campaign priority for the left in Brazil. Hence, “intermediate stages” should at least be considered, though the labour bias must be energetically refuted.
In technical and normative terms conditionality is much less desirable than unconditionality and universality. Yet, news from Brazil suggests how difficult it is for progressives, in the absence of a broad sociocultural consensus about unconditionality, to take such an enormous step right now when the priority is to defeat present neo-fascist barbarism, and negotiation with conservative (but not ultra-right forces) is all important as a strategy for ousting Bolsonaro. And the question of non-extractivist financing of a basic income, basically by taxing the rich, is another obstacle to be overcome. A victory for Lula and a new democratising programme might show the way towards a full basic income via partial and temporary stages. It’s not ideal, but the political reality must be faced. Given the urgent need for an anti-fascist victory in October, one workable approach could be to produce and publicise a clear programme (as a campaign platform) of introducing partial measures by segments which would, in practice, make the politico-economic logic of basic income more understandable, especially regarding unconditionality as a culture of rights. It would also need to show that, far from being a disincentive, the measure actually promotes work, the many kinds of socially necessary work that would benefit everyone rather than a few rich exploiters.
3) A basic income would do away with the logic and institutions of twentieth-century social consensus that have proven so damaging. The labour market can’t guarantee material security for everyone. The percentages of unemployed, excluded, and precarious populations have rocketed to extremes that were unthinkable a few decades ago. Moreover, those who’ve managed to get a foothold in the labour market have no guarantees of escaping from poverty. In Brazil, almost 20% of workers come under the heading of “working poor”. Social consensus can’t be achieved in job markets that exclude so many and that are so destructive of the freedom and dignity of the “lucky” workers who are employed. So, an urgent priority is to make known and strengthen, by means of an income policy, the many other settings in which people can work, paid or unpaid, and where a decent physical and social life is the main concern.
The government of Brazil could establish, protect, and promote social milieus and forms of economic life that would favour human dignity, emancipation from historic bonds of social subjugation, the eco-social transition, and due recognition of tasks that are essential for the reproduction of social life, and so on. With the following list of measures that would be compatible with these aims, we accept that conditionality could be necessary, though we stress that it undermines the concept of rights and brings many practical and administrative problems. Nevertheless, conditional programmes can pave the way towards a broader understanding of work and socioeconomic empowerment, if and only if the political will and the cultural and political conditions (in other words, the appropriate political and cultural hegemony) exist to make it possible because, otherwise, conditionality can end up becoming entrenched. The ideal, in this case would be to create an effective set of forces which, formed around a robust idea of freedom in the domain of work, could end up leading to a fully universal, unconditional basic income.
Here is our list of conditional possibilities:
1) Cash benefits for people working in productive projects of the social, cultural, and solidarity economy (cooperativism, for example). There’s no point in making abstract calls for this kind of social or popular economy. People must be empowered to leave precarious jobs so they can sustain and generalise these economic practices.
2) Cash benefits for people (mostly women) doing care work in conditions of material dependence. A “domestic counter-power” is needed so that women can have and, if necessary, impose real co-responsibility for care work.
3) Cash benefits for women who are setting up their own business, cooperative or otherwise. In social-political terms, a good option could be prioritising projects of large networks of women that could become established in any area, thus providing a solid socioeconomic base.
4) Cash benefits for Indigenous people so they can engage in socioeconomic forms of interaction (productive, exchange, cultural, etcetera) that would enable their social inclusion and dignified survival as ethnic groups settled in certain territories.
5) Cash benefits for people engaged in social and economic projects for real development in community forms of production around the country, especially in rural areas, and historically overlooked (or scorned) and peripheral zones of big cities.
6) Cash benefits for people working in social-economic projects (businesses, community, cooperative, etcetera) for the eco-social transition that Brazil, and the world, so desperately needs. One such project could be a wide-ranging, community-based project, building sustainable housing for the homeless with responsible use of materials and methods.
7) Another possibility would be to exclude (in a temporary departure from universality) from access to cash benefits people who engage in harmful extractive activities in local and Indigenous territories and communities (for example illegal goldmining and logging). This would deter them from working for businesses that destroy the environment and social life and encourage them to look for work or forms of cooperation inside or outside the job market that would be compatible with harmonious coexistence in and with social and natural environments.
Needless to say, this scaled approach of conditional or “focalised” cash benefits entails a series of political and technical drawbacks that can’t be ignored.
1) Major administrative costs are involved in deciding who should and shouldn’t receive the cash benefits (and constant monitoring processes involving interference in freedom and privacy). They are even greater when the benefits cover a range of activities, as outlined above. The considerable bureaucratic mess (plus tyranny, and danger of pork-barrelling) that can arise must be taken into account.
2) The poverty trap condemns recipients of the benefits to the situations of privation and vulnerability that make them eligible in the first place.
3) Conditional benefits involve stigmatisation of recipients of non-universal public money, singling them out as inept, failures, pitiable, and objects of contempt, among better-off citizens. On many occasions, people don’t apply for the benefits because of this kind of marginalising labelling.
Introducing focalised benefits as listed in Section II could consolidate the logic of conditionality (thus underpinning old class structures), with all the dangers involved. It’s therefore essential to reduce conditionality as much as possible. If this gradual path is chosen, broad groups (whole local communities, internally heterogeneous social groups such as those involved in community projects, etcetera) would lessen but not totally eliminate the problems linked with conditionality. There’s a big difference between the poor person who has to go to bureaucrats to beg for “poor relief” and the one who receives help as a member of a community or social group which, for ethical-political reasons, the government decides to support so it’s no longer subject to the various historical kinds of social marginalisation (women, Indigenous groups, young jobless people, huge segments of the precariat, and so on).
With benefits like those we’ve mentioned (or others that might be applied) it’s possible to empower socioeconomically large groups that urgently need to escape from poverty and exclusion, so they can feel that they are real participants in a collective existence that makes sense.
On this basis, ideas of what it means to be engaged in meaningful work, for which people are recognised and appreciated, and in which new social relations are created, start spreading. These are the opposite of the exploitative, biocidal kinds of logic of the neoliberal system, starting with the coercive power of its labour markets. In sociopolitical terms, it means expanding the social (and electoral?) base of people who understand that obtaining public resources is part of a legitimate and necessary attempt to ensure that each and every person can feel fully entitled to co-determine the country’s social life, especially when it’s now increasingly accepted that wealth, whatever form it takes, is and has always been a social product.
Finally, by not being limited to welfare schemes “for the poor”, and by favouring the productive (and reproductive) activities of people who are willing to contribute to society with work that’s both consensual and sensible, this path towards a basic income could be spreading a truly revolutionary idea: everyone (women or not, Indigenous or not, ultra-precarised youth or not …) has all sorts of skills and the desire to use them in social contributions that are being blocked, amputated by the need to knuckle under to the impositions of formal and informal job markets. If the short- and medium-term projects are understood and consolidated, most people would end up discovering that the unconditionality of basic income doesn’t make people “stop working”. On the contrary, whatever the circumstances they’re in, they could reject jobs that are damaging to their lives (and also the soul-destroying “bullshit jobs” that David Graeber famously described), to do the kinds of work they can enjoy and feel is useful. Most people are threatened by precariousness or unemployment. They need (and have a right to) public resources that equip them to escape from this vulnerability and obtain the “social power” to engage in the kinds of work and lifestyles they choose for themselves, with the general end result of better, more just, and more efficient ways of satisfying the needs of society as a whole (including ecosystems).
In sum, the gradual path envisages a three-phase institutional and sociopolitical process that includes (i) being aware of and responding to the present (and also electoral) emergency; (ii) creating new ways of thinking about (paid or unpaid) work; and (iii) moving towards the social goal of universality and unconditionality for a democratic socioeconomic (and ecological) existence or, in other words, towards a fully-fledged basic income.